The 2020/2021 opera season in Zurich opened with a new production by Barrie Kosky of Boris Godunov, in very peculiar surroundings. The restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic do not allow for a large orchestra in the pit, nor for a chorus on stage – it would be too crowded. The Opernhaus, in a bold move, has attempted to salvage the performance of staged operas with the use of technology. The orchestra and chorus perform in a rehearsal room about 1km away from the opera house, and their sound is streamed into the theatre with a state-of-the-art fibre optic communication system. Large loudspeakers are in the pit, and a sound technician manages the streaming, adjusting the balance for a realistic experience, while the singers are on stage, physically in front of the audience. The feeling of a karaoke night at the opera was unshakable.

John Daszak (Shuisky)
© Monika Rittershaus

What we witnessed in Zurich was a small technological miracle. There was absolutely no lag between orchestra, chorus and principal singers, and it all came together like clockwork. The experience, however, was not comparable to a live performance. Conductor Kirill Karabits did a great job, leading the ensemble in a passionate rendition of the score, but the sound didn’t feel natural. Fortissimo passages were clearly manufactured, the chorus booming like no live chorus ever, and often an echo was audible, as if they were singing in a church. Very atmospheric, but not very real. The whole Coronation Scene was unbalanced, with the loud bell drowning every other instrument and voice.

Zurich Opera must be praised and supported in their effort to make opera survive in these difficult times. But I couldn’t help thinking that an opera in concert version, with the musicians distancing on the stage, would have served the art better than this solution, whose only advantage was that we could enjoy Kosky’s production. Unfortunately, the production was not worth the sacrifice of a live chorus and orchestra. Setting Boris Godunov on stage without the chorus is an impossible task (the only opera where this would be harder is, I think, Turandot), as the crowd is perhaps the most important character. Kosky did not quite manage to bring the story together, with the Russian people as a disembodied entity booming unnaturally from the loudspeakers.

Edgaras Montvidas (Grigory), Mika Mainone (Dmitry) and Brindley Sherratt (Pimen)
© Monika Rittershaus

The Prologue and Act 1 were staged in an enormous library, where a student/apprentice (which turned out to be the godly fool of the ending, sung by Spencer Lang) “listens” to the books “talking to him” abut Russian history. The books were literally opening and closing their flaps in rhythm with the chorus singing from afar, like in The Muppet Show (laughter ensued). The library served some parts of the story very well: the historian Pimen (the excellent Brindley Sherratt) is perfectly at home in a library, and also the scene in Boris’ house, with his son studying the geography of Russia, was effective. One of the characteristics of this opera is that each character lives his own story: the drama springs from the internal emotional life of each of them, more than from their interactions. Kosky exploited this successfully, representing the extreme loneliness of each, lost in their own internal tragedies, incapable of intimacy. For example, when Marina and Grigory (Oksana Volkova and Edgaras Montvidas) declare their love to one another, they are always far from each other, and their moment of bliss happens off stage.

Oksana Volkova (Marina) and Johannes Martin Kränzle (Rangoni)
© Monika Rittershaus

However, many other choices were less understandable and successful. In the Polish act, the Jesuit Rangoni (Johannes Martin Kränzle) was portrayed as the caricature of a lecherous ecclesiastic, lacking any of the gravity his music expresses, while the staging consisted of a tacky explosion of gold, from the several chairs on stage to Marina’s dress and hair. After Boris’ death, the “revolution” scene saw a gigantic bell with a dancer covered in blood as the clapper, blood covering the faces of the monks, in a gory scene that channelled more a serial killer’s dungeon than a riot in Moscow.

Michael Volle (Boris Godunov) and Spencer Lang (Holy Fool)
© Monika Rittershaus

In all this, Michael Volle gave a towering performance in his prise de rôle as Boris. His voice does not have the deep-bass quality we are accustomed to hearing, but his dark, beautiful baritone made the tsar somehow more human, less distant, more emotionally understandable. The elegance of his phrasing did not stop him from roars and displays of raw emotion. His tenderness towards his children (Lina Dambrauskaité and boy soprano Mika Mainone) was moving and sweet. The rest of the cast was uniformly excellent.

The audience cheered with enthusiasm, sealing a great success. It was a celebration of life after (or despite) the pandemic, a cry of hope, of joy for being able to be all together in a theatre again. Almost all together.