Gloom pervades Mussorgsky’s bare-bones Boris Godunov of 1869. Stripped of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral and narrative embellishments created to make the opera appealing to a wider audience, the original version tells a tragic story of Mother Russia as it was (and as some may suggest it still is.) There are no lovely arias or harmonious ensembles. Nor is there a heroine, nor a happy ending either for the tsar, a murderer who dies driven to madness, nor for his oppressed people who were treated no better by his predecessor and expect none from his successor. Yet with all that, and a difficult score to boot, it can make for an enjoyable evening when sung as well this performance of Yannis Kokkos’ 2012 productionat the Wiener Staatsoper.

Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Boris Godunov)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

No less a contemporary than Tchaikovsky called Mussorgsky’s music “vulgar and vile” and his operas examples of “wretched technique” and a “poverty of invention”.  But Mussorgsky cared little about the paths other composers of the mid-19th century were taking. His main concern was telling a story about a time in his country’s history that his audience could relate to. Thus the tumultuous life and times of Boris Godunov were an ideal choice for a nation whose history was oft formed by repression, political and religious turmoil, and real or perceived danger from the outside.

Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Boris Godunov)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

The opera draws on Alexander Pushkin's 1825 historical drama. A crowd calls for Boris’ enthronement after the boy Dimitri, the rightful heir, is found murdered. The new tsar is haunted by fear and melancholy. But their cause is revealed only later: it was on his orders that Dimitri was killed. His distress transmutes into gradual madness as a Pretender to the throne claiming to be Dimitri invades Russia, leaving him questioning whether the boy survived. Boris dies, begging God for forgiveness. The chorus is as important as Boris in a story depicting the plight of the Russian people lamenting their fate when not begging for bread or being threatened with a whipping if they don’t cheer for their new tsar. Boris is as much a loving father as a schemer and murderer, and other characters symbolise the corruption and intrigue surrounding him, presenting as much a threat to his throne as does the Pretender Dmitri.

Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Boris Godunov) and Vitalij Kowaljow (Pimen)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

It's a difficult story to follow for non-experts in Russian history and Mussorgsky’s way of telling it makes it even more so. The plot unfolds choppily. Instead of letting the action flow, he opts for separate scenes or chapters and, here in Vienna, most of the curtain drops between scenes seem unnecessarily long for a house equipped with a rotating stage.

The music is a challenge for lovers of bel canto. It almost seems as if Mussorgsky deliberately defied Western conventions to find a new way of expressing the melancholy Russian soul. The score is certainly memorable, with the often strident lines of the main characters, but with few exceptions, this opera is more recitative than melodic, heavy on the lower registers of the orchestra in keeping with the darkness of the plot. Sebastian Weigle conducted the Staatsopernorchester with the restraint called for in an opera whose composer meant to give the singers the main stage while cranking up the instrumental intensity.

Thomas Ebenstein (Shuisky)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

The singers ranged from good to wonderful, an absolute necessity considering the musical and narrative challenges thrown out by the composer. Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk was excellent in a title role that calls for both vocal and theatrical drama, delivered on both accounts, capturing the essence of Boris in all his conflicting personas. Tsymbalyuk headed an evening for lovers of the bass voice that also saw notable performances by Vitalij Kowaljow as the chronicler monk Pimen, Ilja Kazakov as the drunken vagrant Varlaam, Evgeny Solodovnikov as the police officer Nikitich and Dan Paul Dumitrescu in the role of the captain. Kudos as well to the rest of the cast that included Dmitry Golovnin (the False Dimitri), Margaret Plummer (Boris’ son, Fyodor), Ileana Tonca (Xenia), and Thomas Ebenstein as the scheming counsellor, Prince Shuisky. 

Kokkos' staging is fittingly dark and sombre, matching my mood after a challenging opera, but rewarded by such outstanding soloists and insightful musical interpretations.

****1