Mussorgsky's opera, "Boris Godunov," is set in Russia during "The Time of Troubles" -- the period at the turn of the 17th century when that huge country was visited by famine, plague and beset by problems of political disintegration. If it sounds like Russia today, it also sounds like that great country at almost every moment in its tragic history. The time is always ripe for a production of "Boris."
Mussorgsky's 1874 opera is based closely on Alexander Pushkin's 1825 verse play, itself modeled on Shakespeare's historical tragedies, particularly "Macbeth." The Pushkin-Mussorgsky protagonist is the historical figure who ruled as the czar of Muscovy for the turbulent years between 1598 and 1605. The plot revolves around the guilt Boris feels for having murdered the rightful heir to the throne, the czarevich Dmitri, while, at the same time, having to deal with the challenge to his authority by an ambitious impostor claiming to be Dmitri.
The production unveiled Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center by the Washington Opera -- the first in the company's 43-year history -- is not new. It is a revival of the joint production directed by the late Andrei Tarkovsky and designed by Nicolai Dvigoubsky in 1983 for London's Royal Opera and St. Petersburg's Kirov Opera.
It is a great production. The visionary Tarkovsky, the director of such unforgettable films as "My Name is Ivan," "Andrei Rublev" and "Solaris," always thought in intensely visual and symbolic terms. He loved Russian music, he knew his Russian history and he knew how to penetrate to the depest recesses of the human heart.
The director had the brilliant idea of bringing the angelic ghost of the slaughtered czarevich Dmitri on stage at appropriate moments to hover at the edge of the action, embodying Boris' guilty conscience. To symbolize the weight of the time and history, a giant pendulum was placed at the back of the stage; it begins to swing, ominously, at turning points of the action.
While the Kennedy Center Opera House's stage -- which is not as spacious as that of London's Covent Garden or Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater -- occasionally made Tarkovsky's lavish details and choreography seem somewhat cramped, it did not completely stifle the director's startling coups de theatre: the statues lining the ramp in the Polish scenes that come to life dancing; the enormous fabric map of Russia in which Boris plays with his children; the long rows of red-robed boyars; and the final tableau, with snow falling on the ramp, which is covered with the prone bodies of suffering peasants. It is an unforgettable image of the anarchy resulting from a leaderless Russia out of control.
These striking visual effects were matched for much of the opera's 4 1/2-hour length by musical values. Bass-baritone Samuel Ramey's performance of Boris Saturday night was even finer than the refined, thoughtful and beautifully sung performances he gave last season at the Metropolitan Opera. To the impressive range, youthful lift and elasticity he brought to the role, he now adds a maturity that brings to terrifying life the aging and psychological exhaustion of Boris' final scenes. When he shouts "Dovol'no!" ("Enough!") to Shuisky after hearing a description of the czarevich's murder, he makes one shudder. Few singers so completely embrace the ambiguity of Boris' noble but fatally ambitious personality.
Much of the rest of the cast approached his level. Sergei Alexashkin's vital singing as Pimen eschewed neither the character's modesty nor his devotion. Wieslaw Ochman was an alternately scheming and obsequious Shuisky. Stefan Szkafarowsky inhabited the role of the drunken Varlaam with abandon and humor. Patrick Denniston's Dmitri had vocal power and physical agility. Alan Held, malevolently bald and Machiavellian, stole the Polish scene in the cameo role of Rangoni. And Pierre Lefebvre was affecting as the keening Simpleton.
The only major disappointment was Victoria Livengood, whose shrill voice and tasteless cavorting with a mirror ridiculously transformed the role of Marina into what resembled the Evil Queen in Disney's "Snow White."
The unusual commitment, restraint and intelligence that characterized the playing of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra came from the conducting of Isaac Karabtchevsky.
Pub Date: 2/15/99