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BORIS AT THE MULTIPLEX: Met’s stellar production of Mussorgsky classic is a must-see

Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov has always been an anomaly among operas. In addition to hovering, like much Russian opera, on the periphery of our Italian- and German-dominated repertoire, it has for most of its history been performed in a souped-up re-orchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov that glazes over much of its austere, at times intentionally raw flavor. To add to the confusion, Boris exists in two authorized versions, each with scenes that do not appear in the other, and each with a very different ending. Nevertheless the opera has remained a fan favorite, chiefly because of its haunting and musically brilliant portrayal of this deeply flawed tragic anti-hero. Stephen Wadsworth’s magnificent new production that opened at the Metropolitan Opera this fall takes a shrewd approach to all this: It returns to the composer’s uniquely colored orchestrations, and includes virtually all the music from both versions.

Thanks to the miracle of HD technology, on October 23rd four of my students from Park University and I were able to watch the new Boris live from the Met stage, at AMC’s Barrywoods 24 multiplex of all places, with excellent imagery and multichannel sound. The production, with ingenious if perhaps overly stark set designs by Ferdinand Wögerbauer and over-the-top-lavish costumes by Moidele Bickel, will be repeated at cinemas all over Kansas City at 6:30 p.m. on November 10th. If you missed it the first time around this is a must see. With a larger-than-life portrayal of Boris by German bass René Pape and lovingly shaped pitwork by conductor Valery Gergiev, this is one of Met’s most ambitious undertakings this season and one of the greatest services to have been rendered this operatic masterpiece in quite some time.

Granted, including all the music from both versions makes for a long sitting — about 4 hours and 20 minutes’ duration, which however includes two lively backstage intermission features hosted by soprano Patricia Racette. But once this opera sucks you in, it doesn’t want to let you go, and having multiple in-your-face cameras gives this experience an immediacy that you don’t get even at the Met itself. (Plus you can get up and buy a hot dog any time you want.) Pape is so compelling and vocally commanding in the title role that one can’t avoid thinking he could become “the” Boris of our time. (My students, most of whom are fluent in Russian, confirmed what my ear suspected: that Pape’s diction is so good that “it sounds like he’s Russian.”)

The supporting cast includes some of the best Slavic singers around, mostly borrowed from Gergiev’s Mariinsky Theater back home, especially clarion-voiced tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as a convincingly half-mad Pretender, mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk as an imperious Marina, mahogany-voiced Mikhail Petrenko as Pimen, sinister tenor Oleg Balashov as the scheming Shuisky and the spine-tingling Andrey Popov as the poor, desperate Holy Fool. The Met’s chorus served as another “character,” so to speak, delivering the composer’s choral numbers with ringing sonority, and the Met Orchestra played gorgeously, giving body to Mussorgsky’s oddball harmonies and his transparent, often quite delicate textures.

Peter Stein was supposed to direct the production but resigned in July when he was hassled by U.S. consulate in Berlin over a work visa. Stein/Wadsworth’s concept, aided by Wögerbauer’s designs, includes a huge room-sized book in which Pimen is chronicling the history of Russia, and gigantic maps of the tsar’s empire that are strewn about the floor at various times. Both book and map are used symbolically throughout the opera, as when Boris’ young son Fyodor wraps himself in one of the maps like Linus in his blanket — a blanket that does, after all, represent his very future. The book, of course, is badly torn up by the angry mob in the last act.

Boris tells the story of a real-life tsar who spends his life racked with guilt over the murder of the 10-year-old rightful heir to the throne, whom he allegedly had killed in order to assume power. (Most scholars today doubt that Boris really had the kid killed, but Pushkin told the story that way, in the drama that Mussorgsky used as a source; Pushkin, remember, was the same fellow who entertained the silly rumor that Salieri poisoned Mozart, in his Mozart and Salieri, which incidentally Rimsky-Korsakov also turned into an opera.) Pape is riveting throughout in his tormented portrayal, which grows more desperate as the opera progresses, and vocally he is as magnificent and chocolatey-rich as any bass working today.

Mussorgsky’s first version from 1869 ended with Boris’ death, but the 1872 version includes a scene in which the mob drags the boyars and Boris’ other henchmen out into the streets to torture and murder them. For me it makes for a more satisfying (if grisly) ending dramatically, and you can bet that the Met spared no expense on the stage blood. The result was a blunt reminder that power taken violently is usually toppled just as brutally, as expressed in the Holy Fool’s chilling final words lamenting Russia’s ever-tragic fate.

The Met’s Boris is showing at seven multiplexes around the metro. For tickets (at around $20) go towww.fathomevents.com/opera/series/themetropolitanopera.aspx and type your zip code into the box in the upper right-hand corner. For more information about the Met’s HD season go towww.metoperafamily.org/metopera/broadcast/hd_events_template.aspx?id=11964.

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IN BRIEF:

* One of the great American pianists appears in Our Town at 7 p.m. on November the 8th at the Folly Theater, as part of the Richard Harriman Memorial Benefit. Emanuel Ax has performed on the Harriman-Jewell Series no fewer than 10 times, and was a longtime friend and admirer of Series founding director Richard Harriman, who died in July. This is not a memorial service but a recital, and it includes music of Schubert (the Impromptus D. 935, the A-major Sonata, D. 664) and Chopin (the Barcarolle, some mazurkas and nocturnes, the B-flat-minor Scherzo).

When Richard died this summer, many of the world-renowned artists who had appeared on his series over the course of 45 years offered condolences. Emanuel went a step further: He offered to play a recital here for no fee, to benefit the Richard L. Harriman Fund for Excellence in the Arts. “I am still awestruck by his generosity,” says Series executive and artistic director Clark Morris. “A recital by a world-class artist — and our enjoyment of it — will be the most appropriate celebration of Richard’s life work that I can imagine.” The Series has offered a buy-one-get-one-free offer. Buy tickets online at www.hjseries.org and use the code word “patron” to take advantage of the special, or call 816-415-5025. Tickets cost $45 or $4.50, to represent the 45 seasons that Richard brought to appreciative local audiences. The $4.50 price is a reflection of Richard’s belief that anyone and everyone should be able to take part in the Series’ offerings.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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