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Boris at the Bastille: Who's the Boss?


By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 6 November 2002 - Moussorgsky's Boris Godunov, the first new production of the season at the Opéra National de Paris, was entrusted to Francesca Zambello, a Gall favorite, who seems most at home in large-scale works. Unfortunately, on this occasion she was betrayed by designer Wolfgang Gussmann whose sets resulted in some awkward staging moments.

Ms. Zambello seems to have taken her cue from Shakespeare and Faulkner, using the Idiot as a framing device, present at the start during the first two scenes, then reappearing for Act 4 and never leaving the stage from then on. While Boris is definitely Shakespearean in its construction, it is certainly not "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". Gussmann's design featured a false proscenium of painted icons, approximately 8 meters deep, which could be closed off by a back wall of more icons so that set changes could take place behind. Unfortunately, this meant that the Coronation Scene began with Boris and his retinue putting on their fancy clothes, the back wall then opening for the crowd scene. Worse still, all the crowd pushed onto the forestage so that the back wall could close at the end, leaving everyone to make an awkward exit while we were treated to an unwritten tolling of the bell, all this so that a white box could be placed in the deeper playing area for the scene between Pimen and Dmitri.

One wonders who's the boss, the designer or the director, the former sometimes pushing the latter to find interesting solutions, more often simply creating insoluble problems. The globe or map usually seen in Act 2 was replaced by a set of blocks that could later be tossed around as Boris hallucinated.

Ms. Zambello, as many of her colleagues, falls into the trap of including unnecessary actors on the stage whose presence is not required by the composer or librettist, in this case having Xenia as a distracting presence during the death of Boris, or Marina as part of Dmitri's procession in the last act. Is this because today singers are not allowed to take a bow at the end of their last scene in the opera so that they can have an early evening but must demonstrate their collegiality by remaining until the end of the opera to acknowledge the applause together?

Julian Konstantinov (Boris),  Anke Vondung (Fyodor), Ekaterina Morosova (Xenia)
Julian Konstantinov (Boris), Anke Vondung (Fyodor), Ekaterina Morosova (Xenia)
Photo: Eric Mahoudeau

James Conlon, as is the custom these days, conducted Moussorgsky's own version rather than the more spectacular Rimsky-Korsakov. It is clearly a score he loves, and this comes through to both orchestra and audience. In the title role, Julian Konstantinov struggled with his high notes, lacking a certain presence that not even his great height could impart. Vladimir Matorin (Pimen) and Vladimir Ognovenko (Varlaam)-both also interpreters of the title role-the former making the most of his confrontation with Boris, and Sergei Murzaev (Shchelkalov) and Valeri Alexeev (Rangoni) demonstrated the range of excellence available among Russian basses and baritones today.

The distinctive sound of tenor Konstantin Pluzhnikov (Shuisky) is familiar from both live performances and CDs. Robert Brubaker (Dmitri), one of the few non-Russians in the cast, held up the honors despite a few fumbled high notes, perhaps because he was confined upstage by the designer for most of his appearances.

Olga Borodina did not disappoint as Marina, authoritative but also cajoling. Anke Vondung (Fyodor), Ekaterina Morosova (Xenia) and Irina Bogacheva (Nurse) did the domestic honors, with Irina Tchistiakova a quite spirited but not always audible Innkeeper. Vsevolod Grivnov was a touching Simpleton, just the right clarity of tone for his final lament but also the force to confront Boris.

Olga Borodina (Marina),  Robert Brubaker (Dmitri)
Olga Borodina (Marina), Robert Brubaker (Dmitri)
Photo: Eric Mahoudeau

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com..

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