Composed by Modest Mussorgsky
Libretto by the composer, based on Alexander Pushkin’s play
Conducted by Sir Andrew Davis
Directed by Julia Pevzner
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls (Not an opera about Moose and Squirrel)
Modest Mussorgky’s only completed opera is not for the faint of heart; it is not for those who like the Italians and nothing else, the lyrical, the symphonic, the easy ones. Boris Godunov is a difficult piece, at once crass and deep, with, on the one hand, somewhat technically amateurish composition, and, on the other, incredible insight into not only how to musically convey the moods of the characters but how to convey the chaos and horror around them. The music is cacophonous. And yet brilliant in its cacophony. And certainly the music was novel and anticipates composers from the Eastern Bloc such as Igor Stravinsky (whose father was one of the conductors of the opera) and Dmitri Shostakovich (who retooled the orchestration of the opera himself).
Boris tells the story, based on Pushkin’s play, of the Russian Czar Boris Fyodorovich Godunov, who ruled from 1598-1605 after the murder of the prince under mysterious circumstances. Indeed, we ourselves are never sure – really, truly sure – that it was Boris who ordered the child to be killed. Which is to say, there is some small room for doubt. And he did want to be a great ruler for his people: his empathy for them is unwavering. As is his cluelessness: the opera opens with peasants being forced by bardiche-bearing men to cry out, pleading for Boris to take the throne. He later laments that, though he has treated his people well, they think all of their ills are his fault. Yet his people are still unutterably poor and starving. He believes he has treated them better than they have actually been treated – partially because of the police officers and boyars.
And some of the players are outstanding. First and foremost, everyone is talking about Ferruccio Furlanetto’s performance as Boris; and rightfully so: it seems cliché to say at this point, but he captures the role beautifully. His descent into madness is saddening, but his retained humanity touching. And the expressiveness of his voice is simply remarkable. Also enjoyed Erik Nelson Werner’s portrayal of Grigori, the young monk who decides to usurp Boris’ rule, as well as the only real moment of levity in the piece granted by the fallen monk Varlaam, playfully portrayed by Raymond Aceto. And Edward Mout’s Holy Fool is haunting.
The production is very good, as well. The costumes are beautiful, particularly Boris’ (although at one point I didn’t care for a particular shirt), and the set’s highly raked stage extending into the rafters is exactly the kind of ingenuity I like to see. The Holy Fool’s costume and makeup design are also notable, reminiscent of Death from The Seventh Seal. Although I admit that I myself did not find Boris as compelling as the previous two operas I had seen at the Lyric, it is also a piece that, it seems to me, would do well with further fermentation and revisitings. Indeed, I’ve little doubt that I would enjoy it more the second time round.
Reviewed on 11.11.11
At the Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, IL; call 312-332-2244, www.lyricopera.org; tickets $33-$194, through November 29, 2011. Running time is 2 1/2 hours.