Boris Godunov is a historical tragedy with many facets, so there are many angles from which to view it and many aspects on which on can focus. At La Scala’s season opener last night, the musical focus was on the antagonism between two great bass voices: Ildar Abdrazakov as Boris and Ain Anger as his nemesis Pimen, the softly spoken monk who sows the seeds of the tsar’s descent into madness.

Pilgrims’ Chorus in Act 1
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Although Russian himself, Abdrazakov isn’t the typical gravelly bass that we associate with the title role. Instead, he carried the role with exquisite musicianship; the voice was rich and melodious in every part of the range, his enunciation was crystal clear and there was intense expressivity in every phrase, whether regal pomp, familial love, remorse or increasingly manic terror. In contrast, Anger (who is Estonian, not Russian) has exactly the sepulchral darkness we expect of Russian bass singing. He exuded quiet authority – the word “quiet” is deceptive, because he was certainly not singing softly throughout – and  persuasively incarnated the relentless march of history.

Ildar Abdrazakov (Boris Godunov)
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The style of Pushkin’s poem was inspired by Shakespeare’s history plays and that’s the aspect on which Kaspar Holten’s staging focuses. Pimen is on stage from the beginning and we see his history being written continuously as the action progress, on beautifully crafted giant video projections by Luke Halls, all in the context of even larger maps of 16th-century Russia and its surroundings. Holten’s other focus is on the murdered Tsarevich Dmitri (in this telling, at least, the murder was ordered by Boris), whose bloodied ghost is present throughout the opera, distracting and disturbing Boris at every moment.

Sets and lighting (Es Devlin and Jonas Bøgh) are attractive, with the occasional wow moment such as the dazzling light which envelops the royal family’s appearance at the coronation. Ida Marie Ellekilde steers clear of standard costume drama, preferring a conflation of modern and folkloric dress, sometimes ordinary, sometimes opulent. Broadly, the staging is effective and fairly safe. For once in their lives, the loggionisti failed to find anything to boo. If anyone expected political points to be made or parallels to be drawn between Russian autocracy of the 16th century and Putin’s Russia of today, they will have been disappointed; Holten is far more interested in Boris’s personal tragedy, which was lit up by Abdrazakov’s commanding performance.

Ildar Abradzakov (Boris) and Lily Jørstad (Feodor)
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Two important scenes misfired. The scene at the inn near the Lithuanian border, where Grigory (aka the False Dmitri) shows up together with the drunken monks Varlaam and Missail, should be comic relief straight out of the Shakespearean book. Instead, Holten replaces the inn by the border post itself, populated by border guards rather than the general public: this darkens the mood, destroying any comic effect at the same time as making a nonsense of several chunks of the libretto (the one visual gag, with Dmitri abseiling up a giant map of the Lithuanian border, fell flat). And the scene in front of the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, where Boris confronts the Holy Fool, is internalised as being no more than a madman’s dream, the chorus of urchins replaced by the ghosts of children. It’s a weaker premise than the original.

Yaroslav Abaimov (Simpleton) and Ildar Abdrazakov (Boris)
© Brescia & Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The singing was of the uniformly high quality that you’d expect here. I’ll mention two singers who made me sit up and take notice in smaller roles that don’t normally come to one’s attention. Alexey Markov was particularly smooth-voiced and authoritative as Shchelkalov, the secretary of the Duma who urges the crowd to action in Act 1. Maria Barakova showed a pretty voice and acted well as the Innkeeper, neatly managing the combination of being sweet to the customers, accepting no nonsense from them and always keeping an eye out for a bribe.

When the La Scala Chorus turn on the after-burners, they are truly a wonder to behold, with sound that pushes you into the back of your seat. If there was a certain lack of finesse in their pianissimi, it’s hard to complain when such thrills were on show. Chailly and the La Scala Orchestra kept everything moving smoothly, bringing out all Mussorgsky's most important motifs without creating anything revelatory.

The evening’s memories will be of  that pair of marvellous bass voices (how I would love to hear them face off in Don Carlo) and of the stylish setting pervaded by the unfolding of history. It’s been well worth the trip to Milan.