MUSSORGSKY Boris Godunov
The decision by opera companies to stage Mussorgsky’s original 1868/69 version of Boris Godunov is sometimes dismissed as economic expedience masquerading as musicological concern for the composer’s first thoughts. Calixto Bieito’s Munich production – filmed at the Bayerische Staatsoper at the beginning of last year – matches the fierce concentration of Mussorgsky’s seven-scene score so well that any complaints are immediately silenced. (Two other recent DVD releases, from Turin and Barcelona, opt for slightly different versions, but neither of them contains the ‘Polish’ act added for the 1872 revision either.)
The Catalan director is often branded a mere operatic enfant terrible, with certain provocative details distracting from a trademark ability to extract fine acting from singers and a knack for telling a story in an interesting and challenging way. And this is essentially what we have here. There’s a mischievous, satirical touch, with the crowd in the opening scene raising placards adorned with smug, smiling faces of political leaders, and Tareq Nazmi’s Mityucha is a brilliantly convincing modern anarchist, brutally beaten by helmeted riot police.
But the updating seems neither modish nor forced, and is carried out with economy and intelligence, and brilliant attention to detail (the scene on the Lithuanian border is particularly good, and Vladimir Matorin’s drunk tramp Varlaam a marvellous, darkly comic creation). The intensity of Boris’s own breakdown is heightened, too, by the fact that Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s young-looking tsar is presented as a politician polished by spin and photo-ops. The ambiguous tragedy of Boris’s death is accompanied by the casual murder of all those around him. It’s powerful, brilliantly theatrical stuff, helped by Rebecca Ringst’s clever revolving set, Michael Bauer’s atmospheric lighting and Ingo Krügler’s brilliantly observed costume designs.
There’s no dip in commitment anywhere in the cast. Tsymbalyuk’s Boris, sung in a pleasingly smooth, well-regulated bass, is excellent, as is Anatoli Kotscherga’s worldly Pimen. Gerhard Siegel is a vividly Machiavellian Shuisky, Markus Eiche a ruthless Shchelkalov and Okka von der Damerau a wonderfully slatternly Hostess.
Kent Nagano achieves thrillingly focused results from the orchestra and extended chorus, and the sound quality and video direction are impeccable. Highly recommended.