- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 23, 2005

The Kirov Opera’s weekend production of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House proved a surpassingly surreal evening of musical theater. Based on music director and conductor Valery Gergiev’s reconstructed version of the 1869 opera, this “Boris” was nasty, brutish, and short — at least for an opera.

Devoid of later add-ons like the colorful “Polish” and penultimate revolutionary scenes of the composer’s more audience-friendly 1874 version — brilliantly realized by the Washington National Opera’s production some years ago — it’s easy to see why the opera’s initial St. Petersburg outing wasn’t exactly a smash hit. Its dark heart lacks dramatic impact and offers few opportunities for the female voice.

Nonetheless, in an age where increasingly profit-motivated opera companies are content to recycle the usual Mozart, Verdi and Puccini chestnuts to keep those turnstiles moving, the Kirov’s boldness in bringing this savage, stripped-down “Boris” to Washington — during inauguration week no less — provided an opportunity to gaze into Mussorgsky’s brooding Russian soul in a way that his own later version, not to mention Rimsky-Korsakov’s posthumously-added fripperies, rarely can.

“Boris” is in some ways the Russian “Macbeth.” A boyar (nobleman) and court official of Czar Feodor I, son of the late Ivan the Terrible, the historical Boris has been accused of conspiring to murder the youthful Dmitri, Feodor’s brother and designated successor, in order to usurp the throne. Upon Feodor’s death, Boris seized power for a short, unhappy rule (1598-1605), inadvertently initiating what became known as Russia’s “Time of Troubles.” Much of Mussorgsky’s opera, based on an earlier Aleksandr Pushkin drama, focuses on Boris’ guilt-haunted despair as his jealous fellow boyars, the Poles, the clergy, and even the long-suffering Russian peasantry conspire to bring him down.

Mussorgsky’s score muddles through this murky mess, producing moments of high brilliance, such as the famous “Coronation Scene” and the catchy tavern scene as well as somber vocal monologues by Boris himself. Nonetheless, the stark, bass-heavy gravitas of the composer’s orchestral writing transforms “Boris” into a surprisingly grim modernist tragedy.

George Tsypin’s eccentric sets and Tatiana Noginova’s costuming — first seen in a 2002 Kirov production — underscore the hallucinatory nature of Boris’ mental and physical collapse. The czar’s court is defined by hazy pillars and columns that pulsate in the noxious mists as if in a ghastly dream. Meanwhile, the peasant chorus gropes about like the zombies in George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” Suggesting Russian architecture, the sundry descending onion spires, glowing from within and neon-lit without, alternately conjure the cinematic deco spires of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” the hovering spacecraft of “Close Encounters” and a monstrous Portuguese man-o’-war. In the production’s closing moments, as the dying czar is snared in the web of his own deceit, a spire’s unexpected transformation into a gruesome arachnid was surely inspired by “The Fly.” Slightly over-the-top, but oddly effective.

The fine, largely Russian cast projected director Victor Kramer’s vision with a studied authenticity. As Boris, bass Vladimir Vaneev projected the figure of a doomed ruler consistent with Mussorgsky’s wine-dark score. Tenor Nikolay Gassiev was a suitably oleaginous Shuisky, the two-faced courtier who labors to undermine the Czar while feigning friendship.

Bass Gennady Bezzubenkov provided a welcome ray of light as the boisterously drunken friar Varlaam — perhaps modeled on the composer’s own fatal attraction to the bottle. The youthful soprano voice of Tatyana Borodina beautifully limned the vulnerability of the delicate Xenia, daughter of Boris. Bass Mikhail Kit (Pimen) and tenor Oleg Balashov (Grigory, aka Dmitri the Pretender) shone in supporting roles. And tenor Dmitry Voropaev, in his brief appearance as the Holy Fool, effectively expressed the tragic voice of the Russian people.

Valery Gergiev conducted the Kirov Orchestra insightfully, injecting splashes of color where essential while guiding his players to support rather than eclipse the soloists and chorus. This was not a “Boris” to excite the uninitiated. But the Kirov’s stark production, with its sinister psycho-dramatic undertow, seemed appropriately at one with the heavy weight of Russian history as it yet unfolds.

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