Changing of the Czars

René Pape as Boris Godunov, at the Met.Photo: Ken Howarrd/Courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera

Do lords or mobs shape the lives of nations? Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, which compresses seven gruesome years of Russian history into four and a half glorious hours, abounds with both. The haunted czar of the title, a fierce Polish princess, a monk turned pretender, assorted connivers and colluders, and a volatile populace all swirl through a score that sometimes gets overwhelmed by the forces it tries to contain.

In its latest grapple with the vastness of Boris, the Metropolitan Opera had to deal with its own succession crisis. Five years ago, the Met engaged the German director Peter Stein, a specialist in sprawl (his twelve-hour Italian adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Demons played a two-night stand on Governors Island last summer). In July, with the sets mostly built, the costumes sewn, the concept in place, and tech rehearsals about to begin, Stein dropped out. In stepped the good soldier Stephen Wadsworth, who had to figure out in next to no time how to direct somebody else’s show.

It’s tricky to apportion responsibility for the result, but if Stein had some fabulous intention for the walls that keep lowering and popping up like slices of toast, his replacement never figured out what that was. On the other hand, it was certainly Wadsworth who choreographed the brilliant brutality of the final scene, in which a rabble does what rabbles do. Stuck with Ferdinand Wögerbauer’s generically minimalist sets, Wadsworth keeps people moving, sometimes in manic, distracting circles, more often in human currents that express the restless roar of emotion and the music’s ravishing bleakness. It says something about the dazzling power of both that in the final scene, two white horses step to the front of the stage—and I never noticed them.

I was transfixed, however, by the opera’s co-stars: René Pape as Boris, and his chorus of despairing subjects. No opera hangs more weight on a mass of voices, and chorusmaster Donald Palumbo has hammered the Met’s chorus into a peerless unit that mixes discipline and fire. As for Pape, there is hardly another singer alive with his power to make the scene around him look sharper and sound more intense. Other bass-baritones have a darker, more sinewy timbre, or a more authentic Mussorgskian style. The rest of the virtually all-Russian cast may have wondered why the Met cast a German as their czar. But Pape wraps his ermine voice so tightly around the character’s psyche that singer and sovereign fuse. Boris is a Lear-like figure, intertwining majesty, age, and doubt, and Pape savors his complexities. Mussorgsky translated the irregular rhythms and veering inflections of speech into short, mercurial phrases, and Pape, instead of bellowing and rasping his way toward his death, delivers Boris’s agonies with restrained grace, illuminating his magnetism and fragility.

Pape’s triumph rests on his strong collaborators’ talents, and among the standouts are Mikhail Petrenko as the lugubrious monk Pimen, Andrey Popov as the Holy Fool who mourns his people’s future, and the amazing 12-year-old Jonathan Makepeace as Boris’s soon-to-be-orphaned son. Under Valery Gergiev, the vibrant, restless orchestra keeps threatening to burst from the pit and join the action onstage.

A company that stages Boris can choose from among the rejected original, Mussorgsky’s two revisions, and rewrites by Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich. The Met has assembled an extra-long version that includes the so-called Polish act, a 45-minute non sequitur whose main virtue is that it features the only big female role. Okay, so this is opera, where structural looseness is barely a misdemeanor, especially if it’s an excuse for great scenery. But Moidele Bickel dresses the courtiers in white uniforms and the principal villains in black, and Wögerbauer seats them on wooden patio benches as if the Polish court had been exiled to a camp in Maine. How is Wadsworth supposed to woo an audience with splendor when he inherits such dour stuff?

Boris Godunov
Modest Mussorgsky.
Directed by Stephen Wadsworth.
Metropolitan Opera.
Through March 17.

Changing of the Czars