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.
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.
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.