The Dallas Opera’s production of Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov opened on April 1, 2011. It is the final production in the Winspear Opera House’s second season. Graeme Jenkins conducted. Stephen Lawless acted as stage director. In October 1983, Russian Filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky created this production for the Royal Opera House in London.
This opera was difficult to follow, as there were many conflicting elements. (Grigori becomes Dimitri, and then becomes tsarevich. Follow?) At first, I wondered why this production was made to be so confusing. By the end, I realized confusion and conflict was the theme of this production. It was hard to follow at first, but it was a confusing time. The characters themselves were confused and bewildered.
Boris Godunov tells the story of a sixteenth century Russian tsar who may or may not have killed the young son of Ivan the Terrible in order to capture the throne.
The curtain opened to a silent chorus wandering in the dark by candlelight. The silence created a dramatic, disturbing mood before the overture began. During this dark period of history, the Russian people were, in fact, wandering in the dark. Ivan the Terrible had expanded the Russian Empire, yet did so at great cost to Russian citizens. Continuing Ivan’s lineage could have resulted in more destruction of the citizenry, yet to change the lineage, Ivan’s heirs had to be murdered.
History gives conflicting accounts of the death of Ivan’s son, Dimitri. Did Boris Godunov kill the child Dimitri or was Boris merely credited? Was Boris credited or blamed? Did Boris kill the child out of greed and ambition or to save the Russian people?
Throughout the opera, Boris himself (Mikhail Kazakov) was conflicted and confused over the death of Dimitri. It haunted him relentlessly. A young Dimitri wandered the dark shadows of the stage, an ever-present reminder of the child’s death. Boris showed great love and devotion to his own children. His son, Fyodor (Rebecca Jo Loeb) was due to inherit the throne, a disturbing reminder of the young Dimitri. Fyodor was about the same age as Dimitri at the time of his death. Boris had to reconcile his own murderous actions with the love and devotion towards his own son.
Boris was not the only one haunted by the death of young Dimitri. Grigori, a young monk, was haunted by Dimitri’s death. Grigori became convinced he was the rightful Dimitri and sought to overthrow Boris. Dimitri (Yevgeny Akimov) left the monastery for Poland to gain support for his revolution.
In the court of Poland, a broken crucifix hovered hauntingly, suspended in midair. Beautifully dressed ladies of the courts sang delightfully to Marina Mnishek (Elena Bocharova). The contrast between the ladies and the broken cross was disturbing. What did it symbolize? Was the church broken? Was danger imminent? A gargoyle-like Jesuit priest, Rangoni, (Sergei Leiferkus) advised Maria to seduce Dimitri in order to ascend to the Russian throne. Rangoni showed his hypocrisy by advising Maria to sacrifice her honor in order to spread the influence of Catholicism.
Later, in a scene outside the Cathedral of St. Basil, an icon of Madonna and Child replaced the broken cross. Did this change represent the birth of Christ versus His death? Were the death of Poland and the birth of Russia eminent?
Nicolas Dvigubsky’s set was a building covered in scaffolding. Was it being built, rebuilt, repaired or taken apart? This same backdrop was in every scene with only slight modifications. This gave every scene a feeling of always being in a state of perpetual building and rebuilding.
With the set as a constant image, it was incumbent upon lighting and costume to change scenes. During the scenes in Poland, the cast was dressed in brilliant gold, aqua and coral. In the Russian scenes, the cast was dressed in grayed tones of the same color scheme, the coral deepened to the color of dried blood. Lighting effects included rippling water reflection, eerie dream sequences and bathing the peasants in a blood red shower of light.
The Dallas Opera’s production of Boris Godunov was filled with several performance highlights. The chorus was showcased downstage, giving the audience the opportunity to see the fine acting of these outstanding professionals. This gave the sense the Russian people were not merely backdrops to the whims of the ruling class, but a force unto themselves. Kasakov, as Boris, took us into the private soul of a tortured ruler. Akimov’s tenor voice was rich yet conversational in style, giving Dimitri an everyman quality. Lieferkus made Rangoni an advisor you love to hate. Bocharova showed Marina to be a bored, tempestuous ruler. Mikhail Koleishvili, Steven Haal and Meredith Arwady supplied comedic relief. Rebecca Jo Loeb was quite convincing as a young boy.
Boris Godunov leaves us perplexed and wondering. Was Grigori the rightful heir, Dimitri? Did Boris kill young Dimitri? Did the tumult and sacrifice benefit or torment the Russian people? Were church advisors representing God or their own greedy ambitions? Was the future for Russia a brighter one, or one of greater darkness? Was the sacrifice of so many lives worth the cost or merely the detritus of greed and ambition? Often, the most haunting plot is resolved in the imagination of the audience. It takes great artistry to leave an audience with the right questions to answer themselves.