Listing the good tsars is tricky: most of them were the abominable kind, including latter-day recreations. From what we know, the historical Boris Godunov was ruthless about securing his path to power, though whether or not he was guilty of the murder of a tsarevich is now disputed. For Pushkin, in the 25 scenes of his drama, this was a given; in the original 1869 version of his opera, Mussorgsky formed a unity out of just seven scenes.

Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Boris Godunov) and the Chor der Hamburgischen Staatsoper
© Brinkhoff | Mögenburg

Staatsoper Hamburg's new production is in the hands of Frank Castorf, who would have made his house debut in September 2020 but for the intervention of a certain pandemic. He clearly sees Russian history as a continuum in which rival forces constantly jostle for the upper hand, and in which both intrigues and political murders are part of the social fabric. The action takes place on a revolving stage in which three elements are welded together. There is what appears to be a building representing the mighty military-industrial complex with issuing smoke, revealed on one side to be the conning-tower of a submarine, displaying the number 917, an onion-topped Orthodox church and a sleazy bar (the setting of the inn on the Lithuanian border in Scene 4), with an adjoining billiards room that doubles up as the tsar’s private apartment. 

Boris Godunov
© Brinkhoff | Mögenburg

Repeated symbolic undercurrents are at work in constant video projections which show not only close-ups of the individual characters (including Boris breaking out into a sweat) but contemporary newspaper cuttings (PravdaLe Figaro and The New York Times) as well as pictures of Pope John Paul II and Polish flags, testament to “foreign interference”, all underlined by the presence on stage of a cameraman recording such matters for posterity. At the beginning of Scene 6 a backdrop displays a Soviet cosmonaut smiling down on Planet Earth with the inscription, “There is no God”. Where previously the heroic figures of a statue occupied centre-stage, at the very end there is a huge bottle of Coca-Cola surrounded on its plinth by a corona of ice cubes, the nearest timeline to the present as post-Soviet society capitulated to consumerism. Not to forget a vaping Pimen. 

Kady Evanyshyn (Feodor) and Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Boris Godunov)
© Brinkhoff | Mögenburg

In purely musical terms, this new production of Boris Godunov in Hamburg is a triumph for Kent Nagano. He was completely inside the penumbra of the piece: mournful bassoons and lower strings at the start, melodic lines hewn from blocks of granite, throbbing and suspenseful tremolos, ominous groaning and subterranean rustling together with sharp rasps from the brass. Towards the end, Mussorgsky lightens the textures as paradise beckons for Boris, with a wonderfully impressionistic filigree before the death bells set in. 

The success of any production stands and falls with the casting of the title role. Alexander Tsymbalyuk had already collaborated with Nagano on an earlier production in Gothenburg, and his vocal authority was never once in question. Some have greatness thrust upon them, it is said. From his first entrance, clad in a cherry-red military uniform and thick white ermine, the liquorice-black of his voice commanded attention, and yet he also managed to convey an air of bewilderment. Is this really me at the pinnacle of power, or am I merely being directed by the forces of the deep state, he seemed to be suggesting. The only streak of viciousness came in the final scene when, desperate to get at the truth of events that happened elsewhere, he throttles the conniving Prince Shuisky, drawing his sword on him. Here too, Boris becomes a figure of pity in his death throes, kneeling to face his son Fyodor and begging him to take care of his daughter Xenia.

Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Boris Godunov) and Matthias Klink (Shuisky)
© Brinkhoff | Mögenburg

I was much taken with Vitalij Kowaljow in the role of Pimen, the chronicling monk. The deep sonority of his voice lent extra weight to his life’s task of writing the history of Russia. When he shook his fist, as he did in his exchanges with the young Grigory (the later false Dimitry), it was enough to strike the fear of God into you. At such points he spoke with the unshakeable authority of the Orthodox Church. Kowaljow's versatility was especially evident in the final scene, where Pimen recalls visiting the grave of Dimitry in Uglich, moving seamlessly into his highest register. 

There were no real vocal weaknesses: Dovlet Nurgeldiyev was an irrepressible Grigory, his eye always on the main chance; there was the warm baritone of Alexey Bogdanchikov as Shchelkalov, effectively representing an important counterweight; Matthias Klink was a quite splendid Shuisky, whining and insinuating in tone where appropriate, an enigmatic appearance in dark glasses, a black bow-tie and white gloves, looking like a fugitive from Cabaret. The small distaff roles are well taken. All the crowd scenes, with the augmented chorus and children’s choir, had maximum impact.