Manipulation as the name of the game can scarcely be doubted from the opening scene of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. A police officer berates a group of women seeking divine guidance before the chorus is commanded to support Boris as their new tsar. They do so automatically, but remain disillusioned. Money changes their tune.

Nicolai Karnolsky (Boris Godunov) and Ida Aldrian (Feodor) © Ludwig Olah
Nicolai Karnolsky (Boris Godunov) and Ida Aldrian (Feodor)
© Ludwig Olah

In Peter Konwitschny’s season-opening production at Staatstheater Nürnberg, manipulation and the worship of money are leading ideas, as the set and costume designs by Timo Dentler and Okarina Peter make clear. A Kasperltheater serves to introduce some of the figures of influence, with the singers manually operating puppet versions of themselves as they lord over the populace below. More than merely a caricature of those in power, this show-within-a-show calls an entire political system into question. Is it a world unto itself? Is it harmless and possibly outdated entertainment? Or, like the commedia genre it is bound up with, do its layers of disguise, distortion, and violence reveal dark truths?

The puppet theatre stage loudly cracks apart following Boris’ coronation but remains the set’s centrepiece as the drama and world of puppetry blend into each other. The Staatstheater Nürnberg orchestra, conducted by Marcus Bosch, compellingly highlights the satirical dimensions of the less conventional unrevised 1869 version of Mussorgksy’s opera, supporting the production’s critical view of the deleterious effects of power. The Coronation Scene was impressively bizarre, with added gunshots at the end, while the orchestra masterfully navigated the stylistic variety of all that follows.

Alexey Birkus (Pimen) and Tilman Unger (Grigory) © Ludwig Olah
Alexey Birkus (Pimen) and Tilman Unger (Grigory)
© Ludwig Olah

Pimen emerges from under the fractured stage, and his written account of Boris’ crime is rendered as a ritualistic tattooing of others willing to challenge the tsar. Much of the opera’s action plays close to the audience, and the underdog Pimen performs most of this scene on his knees. Alexey Birkus thrillingly and resonantly embodied the former rampaging soldier, while Tilmann Unger gradually became more persuasive as Grigory, the quintessential puppet figure. He engaged physically with Solgerd Isalv as the young and attractive innkeeper who launches the scene at the border with her folk song about a drake (that Mussorgsky added later). The text easily reads as a sexual invitation, while their repeated frolicking sets up the chance for Grigory to appear disguised as a woman, wearing the innkeeper’s dress, when the police arrive. With mask-like makeup and boots worn on the knee, the police keep the comedy on its surreal path. Enthusiastically enacted by Yongseung Song and Jens Waldig, Grigory’s sidekicks drained the innkeeper’s supply of boxed wine, pointing to the cheap consumerism that characterizes Boris’ reign.

In this fresh rethinking of the titular character, the long-ago murder of the young Tsarevich does not destabilize Boris psychologically. Rather, the tsar recognises his own failings, as well as Shuisky’s transformation into an unstoppable enemy. When David Yim emerged from the small theatre in the playroom of Boris’ children, he manoeuvred his Shuisky puppet with musically supported obsequious trembling. But soon after, when he sat in Boris’ armchair, an unsettling and telling grin of imagined power washed over him. Boris’ daughter Xenia, beautifully sung by Michaela Maria Mayer to emphasise a two-dimensional nature, is a byproduct of his rule. The young Fyodor, especially well portrayed by Ida Aldrian, meanwhile enriches the interaction between Shuisky and Boris by looking on with an expression of astonishment and revulsion. For a moment, we are left to wonder if Shuisky is here a product of Boris’ imagination. Nicolai Karnolsky infused this nuanced interpretation with much vocal colour, opposite Kim’s formidable Shuisky.

Nicolai Karnoslky (Boris) and Hans Kittelmann (The Simpleton) © Ludwig Olah
Nicolai Karnoslky (Boris) and Hans Kittelmann (The Simpleton)
© Ludwig Olah

After Mass, the populace emerges as a homogenous group of post-1968 white and gold clad shopaholics, in platinum blonde wigs, with the men sporting hints of makeup. When Shuisky and his men enter, in dark suits and security service sunglasses, they must take ridiculous, buoyant strides across the base of a giant inflated shopping cart to reach solid ground. There is no levity, however, in the all too telling scene with the Holy Fool, brilliantly realised by Hans Kittelman as a larger-than-life puppet/homeless person, whose cowering gestures when taunted suggested a formerly beaten animal. Boris bonds with this knowing creature, to whom he passes his crown, but Shuisky’s men dispatch him forthwith.

Pimen’s transparently ludicrous story about a risen Tsarevich and his sainthood only validates Boris’ appraisal of society’s intractable problems. The people gullibly accept Pimen’s account. Shuisky leaves behind a gun for Boris, who writes his farewell note but then dons tourist attire before disappearing into the orchestra pit while the chorus floods the stage looking for him, gazing helplessly out into the audience.

The opening night audience displayed enthusiastic appreciation, and rightly so; the staging is well-crafted, and is theatrically and musically stimulating, cast from within the house’s ensemble with augmented choral forces. May Göteborgs Operan and Theater Lübeck share in the success of this co-production as it moves forward.