The Paris Opera’s new production of Mussorgsky’s tale of a ruthless leader haunted by guilt over his bloody path to power boasts a universality of Shakespearean dimensions. Almost from the beginning, this psychological mastery secured Boris Godunov its unchallenged place as the quintessential Russian opera. Testifying to the potency of its story, the play upon which it was based, by Russia’s deified national poet Alexander Pushkin, was banned from performance for thirty-five years after its publication in 1831, and then only approved with cuts. Mussorgsky’s opera, which premiered in 1869 (three years after the performance ban on Pushkin’s play ended, but at a time when the depiction of tsars on stage remained technically forbidden), emerged in the wake of an acrimonious generation-long debate about what a “Russian” opera should both represent on stage and sound like. The answer was an eerie and uncannily prophetic psychodrama of insecure power drawn from the primordial depths of the nation’s quasi-mythical past, balanced against the untamed instincts of the enraged masses, and told musically through a mélange of Slavic folk rhythms, Orthodox Christian ecclesiastical sonorities, and adaptations of the Russian language’s distinctive prosody.
Throughout almost all of Boris Godunov’s performance history, there has been an axis of tension in determining the opera’s protagonist. Is it the brooding title character—the guilt-ridden usurper of the ruling dynasty that preceded the Romanovs, an intriguer par excellence who rose to the top of the tree by arranging the murder of a small, innocent boy who was the rightful heir? Or is it the rebellious Russian populace, which mocks his failings and groans under his vices as a runaway monk who impersonates the murdered heir arrives to seize power for himself? In Soviet times, the angry choruses had appealing revolutionary credentials that resounded even on the other side of what became the Iron Curtain. When Boris Godunov opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 1943–44 season, at the height of World War II, an American critic admiringly compared the opera’s angry chorus to the current generation of Russians, who, by that post-Stalingrad point in the war, were driving the Nazi invaders out of their land. Boris’s compelling Shakespearean dimensions, however, made the tortured “great man” title role by far the most celebrated in the Russian operatic tradition—an aspiration for generations of Russian bassos who wished to emulate their avatar, the great Feodor Chaliapin, and a tragic character offered up for the delectation of modern publics intrigued by the fantastically outsized fates of male antiheroes from Macbeth to Frank Underwood.
Just as the opera anticipated a political divide, it also engendered differences of musical opinion. Mussorgsky’s original version of 1869 unrolled in seven scenes uninterrupted by intermissions. Plumbing the story’s turbulent psychological depths, this version proved too stark for the administrators of Russia’s Imperial Theaters, who ordered up a revision featuring a prominent female role, introduced in a power-fueled love story for the young imposter and the Polish princess he historically wed. The revision, which appeared in 1872, principally gave the rebellious Russian peasantry a bloody day of rage in which they violently rebel against Boris’s tyranny in the depths of the Kromy Forest, where they hail the new leader and lynch a stand-in boyar and some Latin-spewing Jesuit priests for nationalist good measure.
In recent decades, an adapted form of the original version—which eliminates the love story but maintains the rebellious jacquerie in the seven-scene format—has gained ground, though both versions are still staged. Thanks to the opera world’s curatorial bent, the latest trend is to go even further toward authenticity by embracing the unrevised original version of 1869 with no quarter for any later material. The effect renders the aggrieved choruses, who no longer have any explosive outlet, subdued and inured to their suffering. Boris, with lines adhering more closely to Pushkin’s original Shakespeare-inspired blank verse, emerges as less grandiose and more vulnerable, sensitive to an increased array of grinding insecurities. In 2012, the British director Graham Vick daringly used this version to stage the opera in an ultra-modern Russian setting at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater just as Vladimir Putin reprised his presidency following an anomalous four-year term as prime minister. Protests had rocked the country at the time of the transition, but their total lack of effect mirrored the experience of the original Boris’s downtrodden masses. Richard Jones’s joint production for the Royal Opera and Deutsche Oper Berlin took a more stylized traditional approach, but still struck a chord in a world dubiously beset by Erdogan, Chavez, and the monsters who put an end to the Arab Spring.
The director Ivo van Hove’s Paris production advances this adaptation in an attempt to inscribe the work with hyper-contemporary relevance. Shearing both its “exotic” idiom (ironically its chief source of appeal both in and outside of Russia since the beginning) and the revolutionary spin emphasized by the Soviets, van Hove reflects on selected results of the most recent rounds of populist agitation. Just as the choruses of Mussorgsky’s original Boris have no productive outlet for their rage, so has much recent populism dissolved into the sullen resignation of Parkland graduates heading off to college with zero prospect of meaningful gun control. In his darker moments, van Hove shows the masses dully compliant with authoritarian expectations while harboring backbiting animosity. In Boris’s iconic coronation scene, they collectively stick up their middle fingers just after dutifully delivering their predetermined votes into an electoral urn under police prodding. At the end of the opera, which concludes with Boris’s pathetic death, they stand at the front of the stage concealing their new hero, the imposter, who has just slain Boris’s son and now pensively contemplates his predecessor’s lifeless corpse in a jarring premonition of his own fate (historically, the pretender had Boris’s son killed and was himself later killed by enraged Muscovites). Van Hove attempts a depressing comparative message in staging the original version, but it really was not worth sacrificing the more exciting elements of the opera’s later compositional history.
It is almost de rigueur to set Boris Godunov in modern settings, regardless of the version produced. In this, van Hove’s staging loses much pretense to originality. Numerous earlier productions cast Boris as a suited president-for-life, attended and undermined by a bevy of equally well-tailored oligarchs. Now we have another one. The set’s only notable feature gives him a regal, red-carpeted staircase that he can ascend to stand out from the crowd. The incorporation of video adds a dimension of insight. At high ceremonial moments, we are drawn into telling close-ups of pageantry that might have been worthy of the recent royal wedding. Other projections give us by turns the seedy surroundings of the opera’s other scenes, searing colors to indicate savage moods, and, best of all, a montage of the “true” circumstances of Boris’s accession to power—his ahistorical but dramatically compelling personal murder of the rightful heir by stabbing, immediately followed by an intense and larger-than-life show of immense remorse.
The new production split the casting of Boris between the internationally celebrated Ildar Abdrazakov and the noteworthy Ukrainian bass under review here, Aleksander Tsymbalyuk. Both are in their early forties, perhaps a bit too young to comprehend the role’s gravitas. Tsymbalyuk started cautiously, betraying a hint of restraint in the coronation scene, but moving on to a moving performance in Boris’s later moments—his laments of having achieved great power and his bitter yet crushingly repentant death. The Estonian bass Ain Anger has already tackled Boris, but seemed rather better suited to the potent role of the wise monk Pimen, a dramatic foil who confronts Boris with the magnitude of his crimes. His simplicity in the delivery made him sound better than he did as a deranged monarch. The fine tenor Dmitry Golovnin sang the role of the pretender with special impudence. Maxim Mikhailov, yet another one-time Boris, added a stentorian cameo as one of the guards sent to arrest him. Evgeny Nikitin, who has also essayed the title role, gave a rousing and violent rendering of the monk Varlaam’s tavern song about Ivan the Terrible’s bloody conquest of Kazan. Damian Iorio led a hair-raising performance from the Paris Opera’s orchestra and chorus.