From the very first notes of the orchestra, I thought: this music sounds like it was written now. How unexpected. I was delightfully surprised by the compelling clarity of the orchestration, the Russian melodies streamlined into a modern idiom, seamlessly conducted by Moscow’s Valery Gergiev. The reason for the surprise was the revived original score (critical edition by Michael Rot) using the 1875 first published version and some elements of the original 1869 version.
This staple of grand opera with Bass lead role was heard through most of the 20th century in a revised version by Rimsky Korsakov – even Shostakovich rearranged it. And obviously, it is the score’s own modernity that was misunderstood. I heard elements of pre-minimalism in it… and it was a good call from the Met to choose this arrangement, with a very powerful performance by Bass René Pape in the leading role. I also noticed bass Mikhail Petrenko in the role of the monk Pimen – the scene where he sings standing over a giant book was remarkable both in terms of staging and singing.
There were many reviews of this outstanding piece already – I am sure you have seen the Tommasini article in the Times - and rather than reiterate what has already been well said, I would like to bring a different point of view. I see that the choice of subject relates to our reality, not just in a timeless manner as many operas would, but specifically in terms of power versus ethics. The hero, Boris Godunov, Tsar of Russia, comes to power through the murder of a child who is heir to the throne. This is not a proven historical fact, by the way, but certainly makes for an intense interplay of feelings, with the Tsar overcome with guilt and haunted by the memory of the act. The crux of the matter is, can one “stop at nothing” to attain power – while crowds of ordinary people are mistreated (the peasants in the Prologue). I can’t help to make a parallel with the way ruthless Wall Street leaders did not hesitate to enrich themselves from the misfortune of countless families losing their homes. However, whereas Boris is heroic in his struggle as he has a conscience, they seem to get away with what they have done, along with a collapse of ethical values as the economy spins out of control. In this respect, the new production of Boris is a courageous choice.