Friday April 1st, 2011 the Dallas Opera unveiled their Boris Godunov as the final offering of their season of ‘Dangerous desires’. Though every production this season was marvelous on it’s own merits it might be argued that the Dallas Opera was saving the best for the last. The fantastic presentation that night was awe inspiring. It was an amazing performance that rings in my head even now.
The original story by Alexander Pushkin, re-told by composer Modest Mussorgsky features a slew of characters spread out over the vast landscape of 16th century Russia. The whole of that empire was brought to a fine point on the stage of the Winspear and at times it looked like every citizen was there also. A masterpiece of stagecraft the giant set pieces seemed alive when swarmed with masses of humanity. The Opera is a choral masterpiece and in many ways the chorus is actually the leading character of night. They bemoan their own fate in the same way Tzar Boris accepts his own and like their tormented Tzar they vex heavily on the fate of Mother Russia. The massive set teeming with humanity becomes an imposing chamber of silent, self-recrimination when Boris finds himself alone with his thoughts.
How clever it was to drape the stage with a massive map of Russia, allowing the scope to be drawn for the audience. Symbolic for us and for the characters. Boris treads heavily on the map, followed by the light steps of Prince Fyodor. However the young prince is not amused when the scheming Shuisky allows his foot to fall on the silken image of their beloved home. The vast array of characters weave a story about themselves but more about a people, a place and a time. At the end of the final act, as the self proclaimed Dimitri leads the mass of people to build their future, it is left to the simpleton to bemoan the uncertain future of the land.
The evening was near flawless. I am not certain if there where two ghost Dimitri’s or if the actor accidentally initially entered from the wrong wing. I’ll note here how reaffirming it was to see so many children performing that evening. There were also some very young men sporting some very large ersatz beards. That and the garish make up probably played better in the upper tiers then from the very fine seats I was provided.
That evening I had an opportunity to meet Tenor Steven Haal, his perspective on Boris Godunov proved to be insightful. He mused that no opera, he knows, represents such a pure vessel for the author’s political views. Mr. Haal went on to say, where other operas feature performers, singing out their own emotions, the performers in Godunov often find them self singing soliloquies for the composer’s own thoughts. Mr. Haal went on that evening to delight the entire Winspear with his comic portrayal of the besotted monk, Missail.
There was a backstage bon mot worth mentioning. Everyone is familiar with the traditional well-wish for performers “Break a leg”. Many performers know that this refers, not to a fractured limb, but rather to taking a deep bow that includes a bent knee. A second ovation style of bow. As the mass of performers mulled in the wings I heard one of the visitors call out this famous salutation. One of the costumed denizens muttered “On this set that takes on a whole new meaning”
The Russian performers brought in for this masterpiece brought an undeniable authority to the performance. The Winspear seemed especially alive that night with the presence of these guest artists and, of course, the teeming masses. The evening had an international flair and seemed ,to me, to be the moment the Winspear established itself as a premier venue and stepped into it’s rightful place amongst the great Opera halls of the world. If you fail to attend a performance of Boris Godunov at the Winspear Opera House you are missing one of the grandest operas to grace a stage in Dallas. This is a spectacular you won’t want to miss.