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By Joel Kasow

NEW YORK, 10 FEBRUARY 2011 — What could be more unalike than the two operatic masterpieces, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Donizetti’s Don Pasquale? Both are scheduled to be shown on PBS in its series Great Performances at the Met (check local listings) and each is indicative of different trends in contemporary operatic production.

Boris Godunov was to have been staged by Peter Stein in his Met début, but he bowed out due to the complications of obtaining a visa. The physical production remained in the hands of his usual collaborators, Ferdinand Wögerbauer (sets) and Moidele Bickel (costumes), but Stephen Wadsworth courageously undertook the task of staging this epic masterpiece. It is not entirely clear to me whether some of Stein’s conception remains, but having the Simpleton present from the start, when his presence is in fact required only in the fourth act, may reflect the desire to demonstrate a cyclical process. Otherwise, the simple sets allow the action to move along without pause for scene changes. Among a large cast, René Pape in the title role is expressive as both singer and actor in a role that can easily lend itself to exaggeration. Alexandrs Antonenko and Ekaterina Semenchuk as the lovers sing their hearts out while generating a certain amount of heat onstage, while Eygeny Nikitin’s scheming Rangoni is as oily as one could wish. Mikhail Petrenko does not look old enough for the role of Pimen, but is nonetheless a potent figure onstage. Vladimir Ognovenko’s Varlaam looks sufficiently flea-ridden but, as usual, his song about the Siege of Kazan is a hit. Valery Gergiev is master of the orchestra and the Met’s players give their all, allowing Mussorgsky’s writing to shine — something once unthinkable when Rimsky-Korsakov’s brilliant reorchestration held sway. Don’t miss this stark production; it moves so swiftly that one is unaware that more than three hours have passed.

On another level is Otto Schenk’s 2006 production of Don Pasquale, here given a heavy-handed slapstick approach, from John del Carlo’s innumerable facial tics in the title role and the antics of Anna Netrebko’s Norina to the over-busy staging at every moment. The overwhelming sets and vulgar costumes for Norina further contribute to our unease at this treatment of a light-hearted work. Audiences of course love it, as is evident from the laughs we can hear, but there is more to the work than simple farcical doings. Musically, things go much better, with James Levine conducting the opera for the first time in his 40 years at the Met. (Would that his light-heartedness had an affect on the production team.) Netrebko is here in her element, but fortunately she is still able to negotiate the coloratura as her voice matures. Matthew Polenzani is a likeable Ernesto, singing well indeed, but the voice is pushed to its limit. Mariusz Kwecien’s Malatesta is in need of some valium while Del Carlo, literally towering over the others, is too much a caricature to evoke our sympathy even at the end.

The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov will air on PBS television's Great Performances at the Met Sunday, 13 February at 12 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings). (In New York, Thirteen will air the program Thursday, 10 February at 8 p.m. ET.)

Headline image: René Pape as Boris Godunov 

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor at Culturekiosque. He has been opera critic for Opera (U.K.) and Opera News (U.S.A) for thirty years and was elected to the International Music Critics Association (UNESCO) in 1996. Long before the existence of "blogs", Mr. Kasow kept an Opera Diary for Culturekiosque. Opera fans can access the archive of his intensely personal, ongoing commentary on the opera world here.   

For collectors of opera and vocal recordings, please click here to access Operanet's archive of CD and DVD reviews.


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