Boris: Do Russian Leaders Ever Change?


René Pape, photo @ Marty Sohl
There's a leader of Russia. He's corrupt and has killed people on his path to power. He only trusts a few select family members. Are we talking about Vladimir Putin? Of course not! We're talking about Boris Godunov. Mussorgsky's opera could have been written yesterday. 

The spare, stark revival at the Met used Mussorgsky's original 1869 score, which does not include the Polish act that Mussorgsky added in 1872. It's also much shorter, more episodic, and makes the opera even more laser-focused on the guilt of the Russian leader. 

A scene from Stephen Wadsworth's production
Unlike the sold-out Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the house was sparsely attended last night. Maybe the subject matter is too grim, the production too non-descript (it eschews any of the pageantry that's traditionally part of this opera), and the cast too heavy on lower-male voices (something the 1872 production "fixes" with a role for mezzo-soprano). Or maybe the thought of a 2 hr, 20 minute, intermissionless opera held little practical appeal. It's a shame though because the evening was vocally excellent, dramatically gripping, and (as I mentioned) stunningly topical even in the 21st. century. 

Boris and his children, photo @ Marty Sohl
In the title role, René Pape rolled out his rich, sonorous bass with ease. It's hard to believe he made his Met debut almost 30 years ago. His voice still has a great amount of body and tonal splendor. There isn't much of a loosened vibrato. It's an A+ voice. Boris, however, requires not just an A+ voice but also an A+ vocal actor. Pape's acting has always been a bit generalized, and it was so last night. The kind of scenery-chewing that, say, Feodor Chaliapin was famous for, isn't in Pape's toolbox. He didn't so much act as flip his long wig into a frenzy. He also never seemed truly terrified or mad. Still, if you want to hear an easy-on-the-ears bass sing an iconic bass role, you could do way worse than Pape. And his final death scene was well-acted.

Ryan Speedo Green, photo @ Marty Sohl
The rest of the cast was filled out with a stable of solid character singers. Ryan Speedo Green was excellent as Varlaam. Varlaam has maybe the best-known "melody" from Boris Godunov -- the catchy drinking song.  Green's voice is so rich that one wonders how he'd do singing Boris someday. 

Ain Anger was a wiry-voiced Pimen. Voice not exactly easy on the ears, but it served the character well. David Butt Philip was a bit too nasal as Grigory/Pretender Dmitriy, although if there's one aspect of the 1872 version I miss, it's a more fleshed-out role for Grigory. Veteran character-bass Richard Bernstein (Nikitch) has an excellent, large voice and a vigorous stage presence. Aleksey Bogdanov also made a strong impression as Shchelkalov -- his opening lament was one of the highlights of the evening.

Pimen and Grigory, photo @ Marty Sohl
Conductor Sebastian Weigle made the orchestra sound amazing, and the chorus was even more impressive. Stephen Wadsworth's production fits this short, episodic Boris more than the 1872 version. The costumes are wonderful, the scenery quite plain, and the Kremlin is not so much shown as suggested with a bright gold-colored wall.

One thing I'll never understand is why Mussorgsky's original orchestrations were once considered so controversial that they had to be heavily re-written by Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich. Mussorgsky's original orchestrations sound so timeless, so organic, so, well, Russian, that one wonders what the objections were. Also, they SOUND like Mussorgsky's music -- every composer has his or her own voice and sound. Mussorgsky's composer voice is so vivid and distinct that I am glad we are hearing it without any "improvements."

The 1869 version ends with Boris's death. Although I miss the 1872 final scene of Grigory/Pretender  becoming a leader more corrupt than Boris, ending with Boris's death means ending the opera with one of the greatest bass monologues in the canon. It's heart-rending and hauntingly beautiful. At the end of the evening the curtain went down and then went up on Pape alone on the stage. The crowd gave him a loud ovation of appreciation.

This revival of Boris might not have been a box-office hit, but it was artistically a triumph.


  1. Excellent review. Just cannot understand why would opera review be an appropriate place to exhibit russophobia? How does President Putin fit here? As for Boris Godunov, the opera is based on Alexander Pushkin's work that is not historically correct.

    1. It's not Russiaphobe. Just an observation that many Russian leaders over the years have been corrupt and dishonest.


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