at Lyric Opera

This is Lyric Opera’s 40th anniversary, and presumably the company wanted to pull out all the stops for its season opener, Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. On paper the production looks almost bulletproof: big-name opera with a decent Chicago track record and big-name bass Samuel Ramey. Even a simply competent performance would have to be an unqualified success. Sadly, the result is rather flat.

What went wrong? First was probably Lyric’s selection of the original original score for the opera. Mussorgsky started with Pushkin’s play and the historic Boris Godunov, tsar after the time of Ivan the Terrible. The plot conjectures that Boris ordered the death of the young legitimate heir, Dimitri, which allowed him to usurp the crown. But tormented by remorse, Boris goes mad and dies, and his enemies the Romanovs quickly displace his heirs and blacken his name.

The opera was rejected for performance by the operatic authorities in the imperial capital of Saint Petersburg, and the composer made some additions to render it more acceptable. The revised work enjoyed some modest success in Russia–it doesn’t seem to have migrated out of the country–during the lifetime of the composer, but then productions gradually died out. The ever-helpful Rimsky-Korsakov rescued the opera from neglect by toning down some of its novelty, and in this form the work became known and accepted in European theaters. But a decade or so ago Mussorgsky’s revised original score began to supplant the Rimsky-Korsakov revision, and ever since Rimsky-Korsakov has been abused for attempting to save his friend’s work: What a ham-handed clod! What a butcher!

From a musician’s standpoint either Mussorgsky version is more interesting, though I dare say more than one casual operagoer may wish for an occasional touch of Rimsky-Korsakov. However, not all revisions are bad, especially if they’re undertaken by the composer. And on the whole Mussorgsky’s revisions are desirable; the work is diminished without them. The characters and scenes he added flesh out the historical narrative and make the plot a bit less choppy. For example, in the original the monk Grigory leaves to start a career impersonating the assassinated Dimitri, but we neither see nor hear him again. In the revision the false Dimitri and his Jesuit lackeys reappear, intent on catholicizing Mother Russia, and are seen riding off in glory accompanied by peasants.

So why would Lyric go back to the original? Perhaps because the modern worship of the artist as artist makes any modifications done at the behest of others suspect. Perhaps because one-upmanship makes using a “more original” score an artistic coup. Perhaps because any bass with a healthy ego would enjoy having the only major role in an opera. Perhaps because rehearsal costs mean the shorter the show the cheaper it is to do. Whatever the reason, audience members probably leave feeling they’ve seen only part of an opera.

Lyric’s production receives absolutely no help from Goran Wassberg’s lackluster sets and Stein Winge’s direction. His bio says that Wassberg started work in 1966 with Sweden’s Riksteatern, which offers an “astounding 3,000 performances of more than 30 productions annually,” and has designed more than 140 productions. The peculiar thing about his Boris set is that it could be used for almost any post-World War II opera production. It consists of a virtually featureless raked platform that could just as easily be the setting for the Ring cycle, Fidelio, or Salome (with 30 productions maybe it was). In principle I have no objection to a Shakespearean simplicity in stage design, but there’s no dramatic statement being made here that hasn’t been made before and better. Winge’s direction offers little more than a kaleidoscope of choristers shaking about and then rearranging themselves onstage–motion without purpose.

The dramatic and visual aspects of the evening were flawed, but the musical ones were acceptable. Samuel Ramey was a decent Boris, bringing great energy to the role, though one could wish for a richer, darker sound for this quintessential bass vehicle. Dimitri Kavrakos brought his usual resonance to the role of the old monk Pimen. Vladimir Ognovenko, in the role of the drunken monk Varlaam, brought a splendid, really Russian bass to this comic part. He has sung the role of Boris with his own company (the Kirov of Saint Petersburg), and I wonder why he isn’t doing at least some performances for Lyric. David Gordon gave an appropriately pathetic rendition of the Simpleton, though one had to pity him for the merciless direction, which required him to be an inappropriate witness to virtually the entire show, all the while dragging a pseudosymbolic gold-plated onion dome with him. Patrick Denniston seemed to show a certain magnetism in the truncated role of Grigory, and in the role of Marina–whoops! No Marina.

The role of the chorus is extremely important in this show whatever the version, and with other major roles eliminated or abbreviated it almost functions as the second principal. Under Donald Palumbo, it turned in a uniformly good performance, with the coronation scene marking the high point. The Lyric Opera Orchestra under Bruno Bartoletti gave a solid account of itself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.