The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Met in HD: New Boris Godunov still inspiring as mostly all of one piece - after change of horses midstream. Rene Pape, Valery Gergiev. 23.10.10

Definitely a stand-out on the list of upcoming new productions for the 2010-11 season at the Met, even before it opened, was the new Peter Stein production of Boris Godunov, the first new production of this for the company in quite some time – after long lasting satisfaction with August Everding’s production.

News then arrived of Peter Stein having had to step aside for what at first were called personal reasons – then for it to get disclosed that all due to much red tape he was having to pull with the U.S. Consular Office in Berlin to get his visa status renewed. The sets for the new production were already in place at the Met, and rehearsal was on verge of pretty much getting underway. Stein appealed to Peter Gelb for support toward making things work out, make the transaction a little smoother for him, but Gelb made excuses not to intervene; it also seems that Gelb wasted no time finding Stephen Wadsworth to take on unenviable task of replacing Stein. No acknowledgement was made of Stein whatsoever during interviews or announcement during the Live in HD presentation. Stein also got heard referring to the Met as ‘a factory’, perhaps out of frustration of having had to deal with Gelb, plus whatever else.

Stein got his start in theater as proponent of regietheater, before as he saw it the re-creative process started going over the top, becoming abusive. His theater for some time now has become of a painstakingly literal-minded variety, usually against fairly minimalist backdrop, with emphasis on close, psychologically worked out, intense interaction between actors on stage. I speculate here, but one must indeed doubt that directing ‘by committee’ was ever going to be Stein’s cup of tea or immediately willing adjustment with Peter Gelb or with the Met. One should remark however at how, if in a way only scratching so far beneath the surface, Wadsworth may have emulated what Stein had in mind, given how involved some of the interaction on stage is in this new production. The ‘Polish Act’ here, for instance, made for absolutely riveting theater.

Over at City Opera one can still hear the words Stephen Wadsworth wrote for Bernstein’s (semi-)autobiographical ‘A Quiet Place’ - again long-windedly inculcating ‘Trouble in Tahiti’ as part of the package – similar to as happened at 1983 Houston world premiere – Wadsworth also then directing it. According to press, Wadsworth’s libretto apparently has not worn the ravages of time well. Martin Bernheimer refers to the lyrics as corny – not to mention his evaluation of the musical setting.

Wadsworth went about ‘Boris Godunov’, conscientiously, so much on quite short notice, this being a tough piece to stage – on unit set Stein and Ferdinand Woegerhauer had already constructed. The Met is mostly right – based on hypothesis of compromise being impossible to reach with Peter Stein – in trusting Wadsworth’s ability to put this together. He deserves credit as well, as interviewed by board room driven Patricia Racette during intermission for looking, sounding mildly ill at ease with temptation to claim work on this as all his own. Several finicky touches let the cat slightly out of the bag that same man who crafted the lyrics for ‘A Quiet Place’ could have staged this. Fortunately, only several things conspicuously misfired.

The handling of the part of the Simpleton was one to find worrisome; fortunately he ceased to be a factor past the Coronation Scene, but especially up to moment that scene arrived, all the roaming and silent gesticulating about was distracting. Halfway denied was ability of the Simpleton to at first inconspicuously emerge from the crowd in front of St Basil’s Cathedral. In the standard (and lengthy) David Lloyd-Jones conflation of the opera Valery Gergiev follows, the Simpleton gets to sing twice the same solo – moreover taking into consideration, unless there were motorized ox-carts at the time (1605) that there is only several days lapse between action in front of St Basil’s and off the Dniepr river (Kromy Forest) - 600 miles apart. Costuming here reasonably well, across the minimalist set, reflected the period and varying classes of people.

As manipulative, conniving, pampered as Marina Mnishek is, it takes some suspension of disbelief to find her - turned into a hussy as well - out on war-path with Grigori across the Ukraine –- whereas she could instead rest comfortably at Sandomir Castle until Grigori’s ascension to the throne is nearly a done deal. Huddling close to stage floor of Boris together with his children in his final scene looked derived from Andrei Tarkovsky’s production Gergiev conducted years ago - long available on videotape and dvd (starring Robert Lloyd as Boris). Except for the Simpleton at the end of the St Basil’s scene wrapping himself in the map of Russia – bringing Tarkovsky motif even a step further - an overall map fetish – maps often being opened, spread out across the stage floor – distracted little from focus on the overall dramatic narrative.

The persistence of a unit set for the Kromy Forest scene had curious effect, both that contributed in an odd way almost as much as it took away one’s usual traditional sense of perspective. One knew the strategy here to be at least partly effective, for the irony with which the music for the Pretender’s entrance got felt, as sounding bright on the surface – but with so much dark underneath. It was to play the auteur just within reason to watch the Kromy Forest scene take place in such closed-in space, with what blood-letting, pummeling about going on – except for those who are able in a dark theater or literally by memory to follow the libretto very closely – with who might have been doing what to whom. It became arbitrary in effect the takeover of so much carnage and disorder as rightly characterizes this scene – even if taking it on in this unusual way from more of a global perspective than usual. That this was effective was testament to Stephan Wadsworth’s very close and intense work with all involved.

One thing very fine about this ‘Boris Godunov’ was the strength of its casting – some real depth here. This was apparent immediately in the first scene of the opera - the brutality, arbitrary control of the people by the police, firmly commanded by Valerian Ruminski. Clear line, forthrightly resounded, made strong profile of Shchelkalov, in the hands of Alexei Markov (Tomsky at Met later this season) – if less beseechingly than from others. Mikhail Petrenko, in flowing white hair, with both a slightly fanatical and imploring look as Pimen, found likewise the right introspection for the part, subtly varied interest in the text. In the shallow acoustic at the Met, he sounded shallower in vocal depth than I recall hearing him before. There was still here a Pimen fully engaged.

The Pretender’s sidekicks toward making it across into Lithuania fell into the hands of two veterans at them – their droll humor at full throttle, but perhaps with sense of menace associated with their reappearance in the Kromy Forest understated. While Nikolai Gassiev still proved good at acting Missail, vocally he resorted to mugging it – as though now over-parted for it – in exchange much experience at it still showing nevertheless. Vladimir Ognovenko, as Varlaam, reminded well how extremely well he sang this for the Met thirteen years ago, during Gergiev’s first Boris run at the Met – paired then with Gassiev again – with how very deep a lament he made then of Varlaam falling asleep drunk right after ‘Siege of Kazan.’ Luxury casting was made of police officer at the Inn, with befuddled acting, interestingly light voiced Gennady Bezzubenkov, not to overshadow lean voiced, still fully capable casting elsewhere.

Andrei Popov proved ideal vocally for the Simpleton, but slithering around between several pitches began to cloy – that after thanklessly having been seen too much during earlier scenes of the opera with as directed, acting to possibly remind one of the silent movie era. Underneath it all, he still looked, sounded fine. Jennifer Zetlan as the sweetly very plaintive Xenia and alto voiced Jonathan Makepeace(Fyodor), both exemplary in their acting, made ideal casting; childrens’ chorus, mocking the Simpleton, was ideally together, sharply characterful, and in tune (as prepared by Anthony Piccolo). Choral work, though tremulous for several passages of exposed writing during first half of the opera, was very well disciplined, the Met chorus altogether sounding as though possessed for entirety of the opera’s final act.

Aleksandr Antonenko was the ringing, exciting Pretender, with accent, turn of phrase all making one at last anticipate him to be a reigning Otello for our day – whereas he sounded still a little green for it at Salzburg two years back (preserved on dvd). Antonenko here proved the equal to the often thankless high tessitura of Grigori – and with alternatively the right look of fire in his eye and hint of naïve confusion with how he may be being manipulated at Sandomir castle. He is less verbally intense with words to this part than Galuzin at both the Mariinsky and the Met - Galuzin still in his prime – in the late 1990’s. With closer attention to this, Antonenko should be able to deliver all the goods this way – and more specific acting as well.

Ekaterina Semenchuk, with firm if not most richly colored mezzo, made somewhat a capricious ingénue out of Marinaa. For dynamic of how things transpired on stage here, she rose to the occasion to sound and appear lightly, shrewdly conniving at it all the while, then gave in easily to the passionate outburst of joining Antonenko for closing duet during the Fountain scene. Unifying the whole effort dramatically was the absolutely excellent Rangoni of Evgeny Nikitin, singer deserving of more exposure in the West than he receives. If voice is slightly less rich than it was on disc with Gergiev thirteen years ago, here was singing to remind one of Sergei Leiferkus on one of his best nights at the same part – Nikitin at least just as vocally splendid as Leiferkus and more subtly riveting, conniving than before. With together the intense, subtle acting of Nikitin guiding it all, very ringing tone of Antonenko and sufficient allure of Semenchuk, the Polish act was hardly intermezzo anymore, but truly riveting theater instead.

Rene Pape, relatively new to singing Boris, made increasingly affecting case for doing so, as afternoon wore on. His is a very warm voice for this, with free close to baritonal extension on top; he provided to boot if not sufficiently specific acting, especially at first, as Boris, increasingly intelligent acting all the same. One might conventionally expect a more gravelly timbre for Boris– with voice warm to almost extent of sounding plummy. The transition between being doting father to Xenia and Fyodor, and his gradual dissembling passively to the very matter-of-fact Shiusky of Oleg Balashov gradually became convincing. In a way, the Shuisky being so deadpan is a more interesting option than the oily, slithery type (intelligently represented by Konstantin Pluzhnikov on the Mariinsky recording) - in a way, all the more dangerous a Shiusky for being that much more easier to believe, thus for Boris to be so gulled.

The deep anxiety already that Pape expressed for ‘I have attained the highest power’ he made subtly contrast well with the lyricism with which he mused over the welfare of the children, his benevolent care and hope for them. He filled out best of all the scene of Boris’s farewell and death, to show what further promise in still better filling out the sides of this part he may fulfill before long in singing this. Balance between maintaining nobility of profile and of vocal line and nearly completely essaying the psychosis Boris suffers was insightful here. One may even look forward, to his repeat of the part this coming March - with much of this same cast – as to what further progress, even if incremental, may occur between now and months ahead.

Working with a production that intermittently resembled the apple-not-to-fall-too-far-from-the-tree variety – in context of utterly bland, widely panned opener to notoriously expensive Ring two weeks previous – might have led one to reckon one was going to get a musically streamlined account of things to complement such. One picked up instead the best rehearsed playing of the Met orchestra I have heard in over a year. Peter Gelb and the company both took the hit they deserved for cutting corners too often on such considerations last season. Boris Godunov, so different in idiom from other repertoire, is especially notable in being so distinctive.

Without being the Mariinsky, fear of comparison here was hardly necessary. The originality of Mussorgsky’s scoring was – in part for better sound than on Gergiev’s Philips recording – fully on display. The quietly brooding command Gergiev revealed while conducting this was very affecting, offering much subtlety, nuance, excellent pacing, and attentiveness to practically every turn in the dramatic action onstage. No less important than the rest was the variety of color achieved, as marked by anywhere from subtly pointed to, for instance for Kromy Forest scene, rhythmically bracing. Bright color for the Polish Act was clear, as was contrasting with it, impoverished, despairing throng in front of St Basil’s. All here worked toward as much a dramatic success with this Boris as a musical one. One can only speculate at what results could have been – certainly with more extensive rehearsal time demanded – had Peter Stein been able to remain on board.

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