"Boris Godunov is like a box of chocolates," said Forest Gump just before watching the Met Live in HD, "You never know what you are going to get."
We got a production of Boris Godunov that was scrubbed clean. All the barnacles of the Rimsky-Korsakov version were scraped away and the resulting score, in its original format, remained continually surprising to those of us who learned it through Rimsky.
The monk Piemen (bass Mikhail Petrenko) who writes the history of Russia on huge vellum sheets during the opening of Act One could just as easily have labored over an account of the performance practice of the opera he appeared within; it is no less complicated.
Mussorgsky wrote two radically different version, one in 1869, the other in 1872, and after his death Rimsky-Korsakov took it upon himself to normalize every possible aspect of the score. He filtered rhythms, chords, counterpoint, orchestration, and he even switched the ordering of the two scenes that comprise the final act.
In Rimsky's Act Four the Death of Boris concluded the opera. Conductor Valery Gergiev restored the original ordering in this production, and also included music Mussorgsky wrote and later deleted, often called the St. Basil scene, in the 1869 version.
In the movie theater, the addition of the St. Basil scene confused loyal opera goers. They thought the death of Boris scene would close the opera and began to applaud when the scene closed. When the shrieking orchestral writing of the Revolution Scene began it startled folks, and the orchestra became counterpoint to surprise and bewilderment.
This sense of surprise was as important as the undeniable balancing of scenes and characters in the restored production. The curtain rose before any music was sounded. Tenor Andrey Popov, who played Yurodivïy (the Holy Fool) was already onstage looking at Bass René Pape. He offered him a large stone.
The crowd began to form as the opera took on a more recognizable shape. But when the constables questioned the crowd, "Have you turned to stone?" the reference was colored by Yurodivïy's stone. Throughout the opening scene, the HD cameras found Popov within the crowd and focused in on him. It was an effective use of HD to communicate something unique about his presence within the crowd. As in a frame, when Popov returned in the fourth act his position had already been prepared. His singing was spectral and his presence made an unforgettable impact in this production.
Pape brought rich dimension to Boris Godunov. Warm interactions with his daughter Xenia (soprano Jennifer Zetlan), and son Feodor (male alto Jonathan A. Makepeace), humanized his character. Pape was able to communicate the explosive grinding of a "soul [that] is troubled" while becoming someone we cared about.
With a huge chorus onstage and the large cast this remained a production that created a sense of intimacy. Close shots from the camera brought us into each scene. We were able to press against each singer and move quietly among the crowd.
The prologue and first two acts were grouped together. There were intermissions on either side of Act Three. All inner scenes were given continuously without a curtain separations. This gave a breathless quality to the drama and avoided the segmented quality that this opera sometimes acquires. The movie audience was not distracted by the bland blue backgrounds that many writers have complained about. Tight camera angles kept our attention and the shapes we saw in the background were varied and attractive.
We heard during intermissions that there were 73 musicians onstage in the Met orchestra and more than 200 people negotiated 600 costumes. Pape gave a quick interview just before the third act. He was asked what he would do with an hour off before he sang again in act four. "Secrets," he replied. Secrets? "No, Cigarettes," he said laughing. He said he actually might just relax then warm up a bit. Relaxed intimacy backstage also. This was a very successful broadcast of the Live in HD Series; it brought Boris beaming into the 21st century.