in: Reviews

May 25, 2016

CLT’s Boris Carries Contemporary Resonance

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Boris Godunov (Dmytro Pavlyuk, bass) and Tsarevich Feodor, boy soprano (Sam Golub) (Maslov photo)

Commonwealth Lyric Theater’s inventive and intrepid artists transformed Newton City Hall’s War Memorial Auditorium into an arena for the political machinations and drama of old world Russia – or was it Soviet era? Or Putin era? Or Trump’s Washington D.C. following his 2017 inauguration? Their generically modern staging of Boris Godunov allowed all these to be seen as possibilities, but of course a Donald coronation really doesn’t serve, because Boris, after all, has a conscience. At any rate, tomorrow’s final performance is highly recommended. Tickets here.

Mussorgsky stays close to Alexander Pushkin’s iconic story, which has rich resonances with Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Richard III—most obviously in the Thane of Cawdor’s lust for power with its price of a guilty remorse leading to instability and madness. Richard’s slaughter of an innocent young heir to the throne tells a similar tale. Boris’s story also speaks to the need for leaders to control their image, and the difficulty of welding to power without trust from the governed.

In the title role, Dmytro Pavlyuk (bass) conveyed power and authority as he claimed the throne; but then later he completely embodied a man tortured, and finally unhinged by guilt with tremendous vocal nuance and amazing emotional range. A vocal powerhouse, he conveyed both commanding ambition and fatal insecurity with magnetic flair. As Grigory (tenor), the young monk who hatches a ploy to seize the throne by claiming to be the heir to the throne who Boris had murdered, Jonathan Price produced an edgy, but brilliant timbre that cast his character with deviousness and determination. Tenor Mikhail Urusov was compelling and engaging as Shujsky, the courtier who Boris is not sure if he should trust. While the entire cast was excellent, Pawel Izdebski (bass) as Pimen, and William Meinert (bass) as Varlaam were particularly charismatic, with the latter having an exhilarating comic flair.

The large choruses, both adults and children, carried off vital roles, musically and dramatically, with great drama. Applauding at Boris’ coronation, the peasants give the scene its complex layers of meaning, as their cheers are forced and strained. This must have been the meaning of the masks: things may not be as they seem. And in the scene where the crowd begs Boris for bread, and the children taunt the Simpleton (Holy Fool) (sung with great poignancy by Ethan Bremner), their horrified gasps reveal to us the gravity of the Fool’s insult to Boris.

The peasants wore drab beige clothing, some rather ragged, and some trimmed with folk-inspired fringe. Police wore officer’s caps, and long winter coats.   The Boyars wore modern business suits, but trimmed with varying kinds of fur.  Boris’ suit was plain but his crown was trimmed with fur, gold and jewels.  Boris’ daughter was dressed suitably as a princess in a red mini dress, stiletto sandals and fur stole.

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Jonathan Price as Grigory (The Impostor) (Irina Danilova photo)

Irina Danilova

The set was very spare, with props—tables and chairs, and a tall wrought-iron fence to hold back the peasants when they confront Boris—all being moved about by the singers themselves. A niche with a candle and icon represented the monks’ cell.   But while these visuals were simple, the acting and music effectively created redolent atmosphere.

The opera’s many set numbers offer variety and color. The quoted folk songs, such as the one sung by the Innkeeper (Galina Ivannikova, mezzo) or the drinking song of Varlaam (William Meinert, bass) evoke humor, energy and atmosphere. As Tsarevich Feodor, Sam Golub (boy soprano) acted and sang an important role with poise and musicality. The entire cast was strong, although different singers will be in most of the roles (apart from the most prominent ones) in tomorrow’s final performance.

A table in The Grove Book of Operas (2006) details the differences of Mussorgsky’s 1869 version with that of 1872. According to a previous BMInt article [here], CLT drew mostly from the 1869 version, with some elements from 1872 and from Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration. Scholar Richard Taruskin condemns such “ad-hoc conflations” as dimming the “historical vision” and “integrity of structure” of his preferred version, that of 1872. To my mind, though, opera always should be able to adapt to the needs of the time and place; that is what a living performing art form is about. And pared down to a little more than two hours this Boris ran an excellent length for the purposes of reaching out to new audiences during the work week. It was dramatically intense and musically strong in both the adaptation and artistic presentation.

The auditorium contained a mix of Russian and English speakers (also the program contained a mix of ads in both Russian and English), and supertitles appeared in both languages. Russian is not one of my languages, but nevertheless, it added to my understanding to see the language being sung as well as the translation. For instance, in the Coronation scene, the crowd cries “Glory! Glory!” (Слава! Слава!) to the newly crowned Boris. One can hear the parallel in the Part 4, when the crowd pleads in desperation, “Bread! Bread” (Хлеба! Хлеба!), and it is underscored by being able to see that as well.

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Ethan Bremner as the Simpleton (Holy Fool) (Maslov photo)

Like many middle-aged ladies, I did keep anxiously awaiting the intermission, but I finally figured out that there wasn’t one. It would have been nice have a notification about that. Nor did one dare to slip out, since the center aisle and audience entrance was used as a stage entrance.

The orchestra was excellent, although I think intonation might have been helped by an intermission. The sound had a good resonance, but perhaps there is some lack of blend by not having a pit for the instruments. The string playing was notably warm (in spite of the small size of the sections) and there was also some gorgeous oboe playing by Lisa Putukian.

The War Memorial Auditorium allowed an intimate feel which lent the performance some real excitement. One felt close to everything: the orchestra, the conductors, the soloists, the chorus. Sight-lines were not ideal, but the space was used creatively which added to the multi-dimensional richness of the production. I really would rather have the energy and intimacy of a small company’s excellent performance, than a much more expensive, opulent one in a vast hall leaving one at such a remove from the action.

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is President of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy and The Rebecca Clarke Society, Inc.  Her website is here.

4 Comments

  1. It was fabulous evening. And this was a generally good review, although I think the orchestra was better than you seemed to think. Not having a ‘pit,’ but rather having the orchestra the equal of the singers was for us, a big plus. BTW, you crack about Trump not having a conscience, implying that he was worse than Boris, the child murderer, was in grotesque bad taste. No particular fan of Trump here, but that crack was Way beyond the pale. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    Comment by Lawrence Franko — May 26, 2016 at 8:49 pm

  2. The author of the previous comment should be ashamed for telling Dr. Curtis that she should be ashamed of herself. Such an unkind and demeaning sentiment is not deserved; rather, Dr. Curtis should be praised for writing a review that shows not only insight and scholarship, but something more. In that first paragraph Dr. Curtis expresses an understanding of how a 19th century anguished masterpiece has a bearing on our own anguished times.

    Comment by jonathan Brodie — May 28, 2016 at 8:06 pm

  3. Now I have a moment I can concur in Dr. Curtis’ review; she remembered more specific details about the same performance I saw. Yes, it was an Event; for those of you who stayed away–tough! Would be interesting to hear from people who went to the Opera Garden performances to find out how the two-piano reduction and that location (nosed about the perimeter using Google Earth) worked. Any reduction on forces is necessarily going to change the orchestral sound; I still need to see a full-bore full-scale Boris. The condensation/reduction of the plot for this production, which I gather was totally new, was set up to concentrate on Boris himself (read up on the historical Boris and the Pushkin play as I did afterwards to extrapolate what was left out) left one wondering once or twice “Gee, how’d we get here?”, almost like a piece on the Obama presidency focusing on him in the White House but ignoring the rest of the country, but in the end CLT’s Boris worked and any intermission would have destroyed the dramatic intensity. (BTW, Wagner’s original 1841 Hollaender, done by the BLO in 2013, also was in one act.) I might suggest to the CLT that they look into making their version available to be used by others; OperaHub has done that with their remaking of Marschner’s Der Vampyr. OK, folks, we should keep current politics out of things; Trump vs. Hillary vs. Bernie (does remind me of the Wizard of Oz 1939 movie suddenly for some reason); yes, the program notes talk of “the character of the Tsar’s being a reflection of our own inner world” so we’re supposed to be thinking in such terms, but for every person who sees Trump as a villian there’s one who sees Hillary as the Devil incarnate (no, that’s Soros!). Depends on whose ox is getting gored; remember the reports of the Royal Swedish Opera’s version of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera/Gustave III wherein the King was made up as Olaf Palme, the assassinated Socialist Prime Minster of Sweden–this was late in the fifty-sixty-plus-year period of Total Domination of Sweden by the Socialist Party: eventually the Socialists would be turned out to spend over 15 years in the wilderness. Well, the audience turmoil then nearly halted the performance; again, whose ox is getting gored–and does it get in the way of the story? (If it helps sales, well…but be careful!) But here in America think of what we missed by our not working hard to elect Rudy Juliani–think: America would be being swept by Operamania and the CLT could get all the funding they’d need.
    I eagerly await what may come for us next season from the Commonwealth Lyric Theater.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — May 29, 2016 at 10:40 am

  4. I am a production director of Commonwealth Lyric Theater. It is really interesting and inspiring to read all of your comments. For those of you who have missed the Opera Garden performance of Boris with a piano, the DVDs will be available soon and you can contact me at irinatyvm@yahoo.com. Thank you for coming to our performance and we will be looking forward to see you at our next opera production.

    Comment by Irina Rubinshtein — June 9, 2016 at 6:15 pm

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