As someone who tends to look at things with a critical eye, I often read rave reviews with a certain amount of suspicion. The reviewer must have missed something, I think, or maybe he simply has low standards. It can’t have been as good as he says.
Now I find myself in the enemy camp, as it were. I am about to write an uncustomary rave for The Dallas Opera’s production of Boris Godunov. And I must try to convince my readers that it really was that good.
Until last week, I was relatively unfamiliar with Mussorgsky’s magnum opus. I knew that it was considered the great Russian opera, but did not know a note of it until when I checked the old Herbert von Karajan recording out of the library a few days prior to the performance. It is very different from the perennially popular Italian operas, resembling French grand opera in its scope and structure, and Wagnerian opera in its emphasis on orchestral commentary and a long musical line. But comparisons do not do it justice; it is a completely unique creation. Before the performance, I was given the opportunity of interviewing cast member Stephen Haal, who had some interesting thoughts about the music. With some composers, he said, you can discern a master plan for the work even while you’re in the middle of singing it; Mussorgsky, on the other hand, seemed almost to be “composing from reflexes,” letting his “nationalistic gut” carry the day.
Dallas mounts a production originally conceived by the late Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky for Covent Garden. It utilizes one basic set as a backdrop for the action, a practice that seems to be growing more and more popular in opera productions; thankfully, this one is both tasteful and accurate to the period: a courtyard with fortifications still under construction, manifestly the work of generations. It is, moreover, easily manipulated; lighting, props, and choreography differentiate the individual scenes. Some of the symbolism eluded me (the business in the background during Pimen’s narration, the appearance of an angelic figure at the end of the opera) eluded me, but I understood and appreciated enough of it to trust Tarkovsky with the rest.
To help bring his vision to life, TDO has assembled a fantastic cast consisting mostly of singers from Russia and other ex-Soviet countries, with a few Americans aiding and abetting. Most can act as well as they can sing, and there’s not a weak link among them.
In particular, Mikhail Kazakov gives a towering performance in the title role. He possesses what is simply one of the most beautiful bass voices I have ever had the pleasure of hearing, and is as effective in lyrical passages as in those calling for dramatic declamation. Kazakov’s tsar is charismatic and authoritative, gentle with his children, and haunted by the memories of his bloody rise to power. His downward spiral into madness was completely convincing. Two moments especially stood out to me: his crazed, wide-eyed “Why aren’t you laughing, Shuisky?” and, in the last scene, his defiant “I am still tsar!”
Boris is an opera much beloved by basses, for it includes two more leading roles for that voice type. Vitaly Efanov sings magisterially as Pimen, the chronicler-monk, but doesn’t generate as much excitement as his fellow cast members; this could be due as much to the role as his performance, as it isn’t a particularly interesting part. As yet another monk—this one a drunkard and a vagabond—Mikhail Kolelishvilli provides superb comic relief and a powerful voice. His Ballad of Kazan was the only number that was greeted with mid-scene applause.
In the crucial part of the novice Grigory, later the Pretender Dmitri, tenor Evgeny Akimov offers thrilling and inspired vocalism—perhaps the best in the show, after Kazakov’s. The other high-lying male role is filled by David Cangelosi. His voice is unusually rich and powerful for a character tenor, and he and Kazakov make their Act II confrontation a highlight merely through the excellence of their acting.
The two remaining principals dominated the famous Polish act. Elena Bochariva as Marina makes an excellent argument for casting the role with a mezzo (as the sole female lead, it is sometimes given to sopranos instead). She brings to the music a welcome exoticism, and her range encompasses both chesty lows and blazing highs. Baritone Sergei Leiferkus does not have the loveliest voice, but he plays the part of the Jesuit Rangoni with glittering, evil gusto. Stalking about with a shaved head and dark robes, he scarcely seems human, and at one point hovers gargoyle-like over Marina’s prone body.
The Dallas Opera chorus and children’s chorus do an excellent job portraying the other important character in Mussorgsky’s vision, that of the Russian people. Meanwhile, the opera’s General Music Director, Graeme Jenkins, leads stirringly in the pit, eliciting some powerful and expressive playing from the orchestra.
Obviously, a Russian opera, lasting nearly four hours with one intermission, will not be for everybody. But if you think it might be, and are not completely sure, go and allow The Dallas Opera to convince you. They certainly succeeded with me.