Gadget by The Blog Doctor.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Boris Godunov

Yesterday at the Sun Theatre, I attended the Metropolitan Opera performance of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. The opera is based on the play by Pushkin.

The opera is an epic, 4 hours 15 minutes long, but I found it very enjoyable. With the MET in HD format which includes interviews with the performers and views of back stage, it was even longer and more enjoyable.

It is often said that there are two main characters to this opera, Boris and the Russian people - in this instance German bass René Pape (who plays Boris) and the Met chorus. Pape gives us a great performance, as the New York Times reviewer wrote:

With his towering physique and unforced charisma, Mr. Pape looks regal and imposing.

Yet with his vacant stare, the haggard intensity in his face, his stringy long hair and his hulking gait, he is already bent over with guilt and doubt. Mr. Pape has vocal charisma as well, and his dark, penetrating voice is ideal for the role.

The opera is set in difficult times for Russia. The legitimacy of the Tsar's reign is undermined by rumours that he had the 7 year old heir to the throne killed. This is probably true as Boris has a breakdown where he thinks that he sees the ghost of the child. The Russian people are suffering badly through a series of failed harvests, and many are starving to death. This leads to scenes of mob violence and retribution ...

... and to false claims to the throne by a pretender ...

One of the most interesting characters is the Holy Fool ...

... who see the world more clearly than anyone else.

I enjoy stories where some issues are left unresolved, and in this regard Boris Godunov does not disappoint. As the opera finishes we know that the Tsar is dead, but we don't know who succeedes him and of the fate of the pretender.

The last scene of the opera features the Holy Fool lamenting the terrible condition of Russia. He forsees the Time of Troubles.

(A bit of quick googling shows that Boris's son reigned briefly followed by the pretender who also reigned for only a short time. The Time of Troubles was brought to an end by the rise of the Romanov Dynasty, which lasted for 300 years, until the events of 1917. Follow this link for more information about the historical Boris.)

Some videos of Boris Godunov

Here is a brief excerpt of Rene Pape in the current MET production:

Here is Pape in a "modern dress" version:

The following videos are not from the MET production, but give a sense of the music.

The Coronation Scene

The Holy Fool Scene

The children take the Fool's Kopek, and he demands that Boris kill the children like he killed the heir to the throne. Boris asks the Fool to pray for him, but the Fool refuses because Boris is a murderer.

The Hallucination Scene

Where Boris thinks that he sees the ghost of the dead child.

Outline of the plot

PROLOGUE 1598. Boris Godunov has retreated to the Novodievichy Monastery near Moscow. The Streltsy police force a crowd to beg Boris to become Tsar of Russia, but he still refuses the throne. A procession of pilgrims prays to god for help. Streltsy warn the crowd to be at the Kremlin the next morning ready to cheer.

The following day the bells of Moscow herald Boris's coronation. The new tsar implores God to look kindly on him.

ACT I 1603. In the Chudov Monastery, the monk Pimen is writing a history of Russia. The novice Grigory questions him about the dead Tsarevich Dimitry, rightful heir to the throne. Pimen recounts the events of Dimitry's murder by Boris and remarks that the tsarevich would have been Grigory's age. Grigory condemns Boris and decides to escape the cloister.

Now on a mission to expose Boris and proclaim himself the Tsarevich Dimitry, Grigory is trying to cross into Lithuania to find support for his cause. At an inn near the border, he is almost arrested but manages to escape, pursued by the Streltsy.

ACT II Boris's daughter moruns the death of her fiance. Boris comforts her and talks with his young son about inheriting the throne, then reflects to himself on the crime that gained him the throne and the fears that torment him. Shuisky, a powerful boyar (noble), brings news of a pretender to the Russian throne, supported by the Polish court and the Pope. When Boris learns that the pretender claims to be Dimitry, he is deeply shaken. Alone, he gives way to his terror, imagining that he sees Dimitry's ghost. Torn by guilt, he prays for forgiveness.

ACT III Grigory, who now openly claims to be Dimitry, has made his way to Sandomir Castle in Poland. He hopes to win the powerful and ambitious Marina Mnishek, but she rejects his protestations of love until she is certain of his determination to become tsar.

ACT IV Outside the Cathedral of St. Basil in Moscow, peasants debate whether Tsarevich Dimitry still lives, as news reaches them that his troops are near. A group of children torment a Holy Fool. When Boris and his court come from the cathedral, the Holy Fool demands that Boris kill the children the way he killed Dimitry. Boris asks his accuser to pray for him, but the Holy Fool refuses to intercede for a murderer and, as the crowd disperses, laments Russia's dark future. The council of boysrs passes a death sentence on the pretender. Shuisky arrives with an account of Boris's hallucinations of the murdered tsarevich. Boris suddenly storms in, disoriented and crying out to Dimitry. When he regains his composure Shuisky brings in Pimen, who tells of a man who was cured of blindness while praying at Dimitry's grave. Boris breaks down. He sends the boyars away calling for his son. Naming him heir to the throne, he bids a loving farewell to the boy and dies.

In a forest clearing near Kromy, an angry mob proclaims its resolve to tead down the old order. The false Dimitry arrives with Marina and his army. He calls for the cheering people to follow him on his march to Moscow. The Holy Fool stays behind, lamenting Russia's bleak, uncertain future.

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