Boris Godunov Review - Gripping and Powerful

As the sixteen months that featured The Soviet Arts Experience, in which Chicagoans have had the opportunity to learn about many aspects of the Soviet period, there is a related opportunity in the next few weeks.  Go to Lyric Opera of Chicago to see the quintessential Russian opera, Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky and take a step into the power and intrigue of Russia, 1598 to 1605.


Boris Godunov’s reign, documented in The History of the Russian Empire by Karamzin was the basis of a play of the same name by Alexander Pushkin. Mussorgsky reduced Pushkin’s play, which had 25 scenes to seven which became the libretto for the opera.  It is a powerful tragic story reminiscent of Macbeth. Lyric presented it for the first time in November 1958.  There are several versions from which to choose that include an embellished version by Mussorgsky with additional female roles and those orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich, both of whom attempted to “improve” the work of the self-taught Mussorgsky. Each version has been popular at different times.


The basic story revolves around the unexplained circumstances in which Czarevich Dmitri, the second son of Ivan the Terrible was assassinated.  It was rumored that one of the boyars (feudal lords) of Russia, Boris Godunov, had instigated this.


The opera opens dramatically as Muscovites beg the regent, Boris Godunov (bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, debut), to accept the throne as czar, which he previously refused.  Finally, he relents, but on the day of his coronation, as he appears before his people, he finds it difficult to pull together the dignity he needs to cover his own agonizing doubts. Five years later, the monk Pimen (bass Andrea Silvestrelli), tells a novice, Grigori (Erik Nelson Werner, debut), of the murder of young Dmitri, heir to the throne.  Grigori, realizing that Dmitri would have been his own age, is also convinced that Boris was the murderer. Overnight he reinvents himself as pretender to the throne and aims to punish Boris.  At home in his palace, Boris finds joy in the love of his two children.  However, when alone, he’s pursued by devastating visions of the bloody Dmitri.  When the manipulative Prince Shuisky (tenor Štefan Margita, debut) announces that Dmitri may be still alive — there’s a pretender in Lithuania, and his army is advancing on Moscow! Boris’s agony brings him to the point of collapse. Before all his courtiers, he presents his terrified young son Fyodor as the new czar and dies begging God’s forgiveness.


The San Francisco Opera Association owns this production of Boris Godunov.  The opera is filled with spectacle that contrasts with very personal moments evoking a broad sweep of emotion.  The music is beautiful and filled with melodies based on Russian folk music and Russian Orthodox liturgical music.  This production offers amazing sets (Goran Wassberg), costumes (Kari Gravklev) and lighting (Duane Schuler).  The large cast is remarkable and the inclusion of the Chicago Children’s Choir the perfect touch.  The role of the orchestra was very important and wonderfully executed with Conductor, Sir Andrew Davis.


This opera actually has three great bass roles. Although the bass voice is generally not my favorite, these voices were so spectacular, that I was mesmerized.  The spectacle of the first scene and the coronation scene were outstanding.  I was very moved by the holy fool (Edward Mout), especially the scene in which the Chicago Children’s Choir taunted him.  The acting in the last scene on the part of both Boris and his son Fyodor (Emily Fons) was remarkable.


Boris Godunov is for anyone who wants to have a deeply emotional experience on all levels.  You have until November 29th.  See it.


Lyric Opera of Chicago

20 North Wacker Drive, Chicago, IL 60606
(312) 332-2244


Photos: Dan Rest





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