It is now eleven years since The Metropolitan Opera presented Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. In October 2010, Valery Gergiev led a sort-of hybrid version of this opera. He chose the revised 1872 version but included a scene from the original, untouched 1869 edition. Now The Met has returned to the composer's original vision. Without the Polish act and its sexual and political machinations, we are left with a thoroughly cogent tale in seven tight scenes of a Tsar’s emotional and political descent into madness by his murderous act which took place before the start of the opera: the order to assassinate the heir apparent that cemented Boris' ascendency to the throne. In this version it is Boris and the Russian people who emerge as the opera's co-protagonists.

René Pape (Boris Godunov)
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

In addition, we are hearing the opera without Rimsky-Korsakov’s or Shostakovich’s re-orchestrations. Those brought up on Rimsky – the preferred version heard almost invariably throughout the 20th century – might be somewhat disappointed. Gone are the shining colors, the easier harmonies, the high winds, the plugged-in-grandeur. What’s left is sparse and coarse, underlining not the Tsar’s hauteur and power but his uncertainty and raw, growing desperation. And The Met’s decision to perform the seven scenes in a single two-hour-and-ten-minute act only adds to that intensity. 

Donald Palumbo’s superb chorus, which received a standing ovation at the opera’s close, fairly took one’s breath away. Whether in rebellion, prayer or rage, they were the other protagonist, a force to be reckoned with. Director Stephen Wadsworth handled the rowdy crowds and the nasty whip-and-stick wielding police with clarity.

Miles Mykkanen (The Holy Fool)
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

The character of the Holy Fool, hauntingly sung and acted here by Miles Mykkanen, clearly represents Boris’ conscience, and Wadsworth fascinatingly has him confronting the Tsar-to-be on an empty stage before a note of music is played. Boris recoils from the Fool immediately and takes refuge in the monastery. The Fool appears often – twirling madly when not singing – a constant reminder of Boris’ guilt. Each member of the cast is treated individually by Wadsworth – the calm, pious Pimen of Estonian bass Ain Anger, who used his warm, steady tone to make certain the historic truth was known; Ukrainian tenor Maxim Pastor’s sneaky, duplicitous Shuisky; the sympathetic Shchelkalov of baritone Aleksey Bogdanov (another Ukranian), and the focused, determined performance by Englishman David Butt Philip. Bass Ryan Speedo Green’s Varlaam offered a fine, rambunctious interlude in the midst of all the gloom, his towering presence and easy stage demeanor only adding to the portrayal.

Ain Anger (Pimen) and Daivd Butt Philip (Grigory)
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

And at the center reigned René Pape, repeating his Boris of eleven years ago. Uncertain and anxious from the start, hair disheveled, his posture managing to make him seem both huge and cowering at once, his gaze both empty and suspicious, his Boris nevertheless elicited sympathy: his step faltered on his way into the Kremlin in the Coronation Scene, and, though we believed him to be guilty of murder, he remained regal. In the scene in his apartments, before Shuisky terrifies him with news that the Pretender claims to be Dmitry, we see him interacting lovingly with his children, hoping his son will be worthy of the throne. There was terror in his prayers at the scene’s end and his death scene, practically a seizure, was capped by his huge outburst that he was still Tsar. Pape’s voice remains an instrument of beauty and power, and his soft singing was mightily effective as well. 

Erika Baikoff (Xenia), René Pape (Boris Godunov) and Megan Marino (Feodor)
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

The sets by Ferdinand Wögerbauer are a dispappointment – sparse to a point of underplaying the Royal situation, they consist of a handsome backdrop of red and gold and otherwise dreary flats. And, of course, a throne. The costumes by Moidele Bickel are stunning and full of detail and color. 

Sebastain Weigle’s intense, tight leadership of the stunningly rehearsed Met Orchestra was faultless. The low strings and lack of density in the ensemble somehow added to the wintry chill of the plot; when bright colors were needed to underscore a situation, Weigle, et al, provided them. A lofty, moving performance.