This season, the Metropolitan Opera is presenting two operas that weave personal emotional drama into the sweep of great historical events: Boris Godunov and Don Carlo. On October 8, the final dress rehearsal of Boris took place, and what follows are the Unbiased Opinionator's impressions.
* Notes *
After Peter Stein's cancellation due to visa difficulties, it was left to Stephen Wadsworth, in only five weeks, to rework the show's staging and direction. Perhaps as a result of this abrupt change in leadership, René Pape's Boris seemed lost, staggering about the stage, looking more drunk than physically and emotionally tormented by the burdens of power and guilt. His vocal delivery seemed to lack core, which might be attributed to the early hour of the rehearsal. Nonetheless, his sound was diffuse and as the rehearsal progressed, tended toward a barked delivery, even in the more legato monologues. I am a great admirer of René Pape's work, however, he seemed miscast here – the effective center of his range is higher than the role demands. But, then, where are the true bassi of yore, those cast in the mold of Ghiarov, George London or Jerome Hines, let alone Chaliapin?
That said, the remaining, very large, solo cast was uniformly strong. Particularly fine were Ekaterina Semenchuk (Marina) and Aleskadrs Antonenko (Grigoriy). The performance by the young Jonathan A. Makepeace as Boris' son Fyodor was nothing short of astonishing: vocally, dramatically and choreographically. This role is often taken by a mezzo-soprano, and such a level of accomplishment by an adolescent was immensely impressive. I cannot imagine a better Pimen (bass Mikhail Petrenko), whose solemn portrayal of the hermit was very moving. Evgeny Nikitin's Rangoni could perhaps be faulted for a certain ragged vocal delivery, but this was in keeping with the smarminess of the character, alternately coming on sexually to Marina and trying convince her to seduce Grigoriy into returning to Moscow to claim the throne, paving the way for the destruction of Russian Orthodoxy by Rome.
The large chorus in Boris Godunov is a character in itself, and a very important one. Driven and oppressed, veering from servile obedience to outraged vengeance, the Met chorus was dramatically magnificent and technically unimpeachable, with razor sharp attacks, violent and dramatically overwhelming outbursts -- never yelled, or (as in previous years) fraught with poor blend and heavy vibrato in the soprano section. Donald Palumbo's work with this group has created one of the world's finest opera choruses.
As in Wagner, the orchestra is also itself a character in the opera; never a mere accompaniment, but rather a commentator on and instigator of the events taking place on stage. The incomparable Met orchestra rose to the occasion, which is particularly impressive in light of the fact that the weakest link in this performance was conductor Valery Gergiev, whose head remained buried in the score as he threw out the occasional cue with his left hand, while the right hand flaccidly and indistinctly waved about in unintelligible beat patterns. It is a tribute to the soloists, the choral ensemble and the orchestra that the performance was as cohesive as it was, with only occasional lack of coordination between the pit and the stage. Further, the tempi chosen by Gergiev, in particular in the prologue and in the Third Act Polonaise, were unconscionably rushed. The small string figures that spin over the characteristic rhythm of the Polonaise were reduced to a thin wash as the players struggled to keep up. One can only surmise, generously, that tempo choices were dictated by time constraints.
The set design was spare – even abstract, with the Novodievichy Monastery in the first act reduced to a small entry portal on stage left. The Kremlin consisted of a gold wall which descended from the flies, with a small curtained door for Boris' entrances and exits. While this created a wonderful acoustic resonator for the singers, the row of bells at the top of the set, remaining motionless as digitally produced bell sounds pealed, was frankly a bit silly. The Polish court scene consisted of rows of black columns, which provided a fine backdrop for the elaborate white gowns and hats worn by the noblewomen (designed by Dorothee Urmacher). The triumphant return of Grigory the Pretender's forces in Varmy forest, en route to Moscow, was set on a bare, raked staged, with a central rectangular opening, out of which emerged banner-waiving soldiers and two white horses, which reinforced the old maxim – live animals and children are scene-stealers. At the conclusion, the Holy Fool (in a very fine delivery by tenor Andrey Popov), bemoans the dark destiny of Mother Russia; godless, populated by a mob and rabble ready to follow any leader strong enough to bludgeon his way to power.
* Tattling *
Peter Gelb's latest innovation, offering 1,000 dress rehearsal tickets by lottery, in addition to those offered to patrons and guild members, combined with a thoughtful and intelligent spoken introduction, and his humorous admonition that the only electrical devices that should operate during the performance be on stage and not in the auditorium, provided for a mercifully quiet, disciplined and cellphone-free audience. If only this were the case in performances and not just dress rehearsals!