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The Lyric Opera kicks off its 40th anniversary this weekend with an appropriately lavish production of Boris Godunov. Based on Pushkin’s account of Byzantine palace politics in late-16th-century Moscow, Mussorgsky’s sprawling saga of a cruel czar’s tragic fate is part drama and part agitprop. His musical idiom, which tries to capture the nasal sonority and irregular meters of Russian speech, was radical for its time, and his orchestration–“polished” as a favor by Rimsky-Korsakov in a subsequent revision–is daringly original, deftly juxtaposing primitive sound and lush, stately pageantries (it’s said to have influenced Debussy and Prokofiev). What promises to distinguish the Lyric’s production, which uses Mussorgsky’s original (1869) version, is bass-baritone (and Lyric favorite) Samuel Ramey as the antihero Boris. Now in his vocal prime (and always a good actor), Ramey seems a natural for the role. The fairly distinguished supporting cast includes Dimitri Kavrakos (as Pimen), John Duykers (Prince Shuisky), Patrick Denniston (Dimitri), and David Gordon (Simpleton). One certainly can expect stirring singing from the Lyric chorus, which has the opera’s most sympathetic role–the Russian people. But the pit orchestra’s less-than-steady brass section, which has to flawlessly convey the music’s pomp and growls, faces a tough challenge. Bruno Bartoletti, not always a trustworthy Russian hand, conducts. Saturday, 7 PM, and Tuesday and next Friday, September 23, 7:30 PM; Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker; 332-2244, ext. 500.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc von Appelghem.