A classical and controlled performance of Mussorgsky's masterpiece. A coherent, at times didactic staging
After the glamour of the St. Ambrose opening, the performances of Modest Musorgsky's Boris Godunov continue at La Scala, in the original 1869 version, so without the "Polish" act and without the final scene. This first version, more focused on the leading character, ends with the death of Tsar Boris Godunov. All the critics agree in attributing to this so-called Ur-Boris, characters of more marked drama, roughness and more genuinely Russian musical definition, compared to the later version of 1872, with which Mussorgsky tried to come closer to 19th century operatic conventions.
Riccardo Chailly, on the other hand, proposes an unusual path, choosing to approach the Ur-Boris with a substantially classical concertation, very carefully controlled and little inclined to the coruscating accents that are nonetheless present in the score. The result is an almost "Viennese" lecture of the opera, focused on the cantabile and melodic parts to full disadvantage of the theatricality. The choice of the vocal cast was consequent, with voices that were very homogeneous and loyal to the overall style, but often muffled and with not immense sound volumes.
A peculiar choice carried through with rigour that of Riccardo Chailly. Of course, if it had been Verdi or Puccini, such an extreme and innovative reading would have dragged behind it long musical and interpretative discussions, but since it is an opera that is less present in the repertoire, even if there are numerous editions at La Scala, it has not provoked any particular querelles among fans.
The result is a performance of great musical finesse and skill, but little theatrical on the whole, also due to Kasper Holten's sometimes didactic staging and mise-en-scène, assisted by Es Devlin's scenery and Ida Marie Ellekilde's costumes. The Danish director sets the story in an undefined place, built with large canvases full of writing and drawings, themselves framed by maps that enclose the scenery and loom over the entire stage. An abstract scenery indeed, filled with symbolic and visual references to the Russian history. The written text is all-pervasive on stage. As to say that rumours and news evidently manipulate and distort history, influencing the events of Tsar Boris.
The first two scenes unfold essentially static, with the chorus always placed in the centre and a coronation scene handled without any particular splendour, with the clergy and the Tsar walking out of a central golden door, reaching the proscenium, and then predictably walking back to their own steps. From the coronation scene onwards, the director introduces the figure of the murdered Zarevic, a boy smeared in blood, a visible projection of Boris's sense of guilt. A choice that is not particularly innovative, but above all excessively present in the continuation of the opera.
Pimen's scene takes place in an imaginary cell, with the monk intent on writing his story on the walls, only to later find it in more conventional and predictable parchments. Despite the abstractness of the setting, the action is orchestrated in a naturalistic manner, with Grigory eating bread during the story and other naturalistic details. Exaggerated then is the use of paintings that follow one another throughout the long tale, accurately and repetitively illustrating the events chronicled by the holy monk.
During the “tavern scene”, a fence descends from above, dividing the stage and marking physically the border between Russia and Lithuania, not without the clarifying inscription 'Lithuania' appearing on the map at the backstage. For the rest, the stage direction alternates between abstractionism and naturalist theatre insertions, often trivial, such as the soup pot and brazier fires. The acting and the disposition of the singers is essentially conventional, except for the final breakaway of Grigory, who climbs along the vertical map with a suggestive effect.
In the second part of the opera, on the other hand, we find far more originality. The direction chooses to focus entirely around the tormented figure of Boris, who after the first scene in the palace remains on stage, reliving all the subsequent events as if in a nightmare.
The Tsar's room is furnished with golden, redundant furniture: a writing desk, a double bed, a sofa and cabinets with plenty of liquor. In the scene of the family idyll, the figure of the murdered Tsarevic does not fail to burst in, seeming to set off the crisis that will shortly lead Boris to his death. The next scene, in front of St. Basil's, is actually in the very same setting and takes place in the presence of Boris, distraught and hallucinated. Therefore, the entrance of the folk who lay the children of the choir on the proscenium is very appropriate; the same children rise shortly afterwards to sing their melody and the Tsar sees in them the infinite projections of the murdered Tsarevic. Effective is also the apparition of the Innocent, who carries a bloody doll in his hand, and seems yet another nightmare for the afflicted monarch.
Delirium then takes possession of Boris's mind, in which the bloody ghosts multiply: in fact, in addition to the Tsarevic, the again bloody spectres of his innocent children, slaughtered by an unknown hand, also appear. In the dramatic finale, the Tsar goes mad on hearing the tale of the monk Pimen, deviously introduced by the perfidious Sujskij, and the ultimate delirium is observed by a triumphant Grigorij, who appears at the top of the backstage, by now dominator and manipulator of the false news that has driven the leading character to madness. Everything is concluded and Boris dies stabbed by a palace conspiracy rather than as a result of his madness.
Grigory, with an evil grin, now takes over the stage and turns a terrible, death-defying glance on Boris' innocent and terrified children.
An excellently organised second act, with the alternation of scenes resolved in an effective and original way, does not entirely save a mise-en-scène that, although very professional and well-prepared, seemed to us at times too focused on a few ideas, with unforgivable mixtures of symbolism and naturalism. If the symbolism linked to the power of writing, its manipulation and its distortions was stimulating, the whole comes off as too cerebral and substantially anti-theatrical, with the singers more restrained than stimulated by the direction. A good staging on the whole, but one that lacked the “bite” to “be real musical theatre” and not just “mise en-scène”.
The singing company was homogeneous and chosen in line with the basic assumptions of the concertation. Ildar Abdrazakov is an intelligent, musical singer; a good performer, with a light vocality well suited to this kind of musical reading. Of course, he lacked the necessary vocal grandeur and sharper fraseggio in the lower register, which was often covered by the orchestra. His overall performance was very attentive, but it lacked the “bite” of the “mattatore”. Ain Anger sketches a credible Pimen with hieratic accents and well supported singing. Dimitry Golovnin offers us a Grigorij Otrep'ev of perfidious ambition, making the most of his firm, stentorian tenor timbre. Less focused was Norbert Ernst as Sujskij, who lacked the “squillo” and a more coherent and involved stage credibility. Excellent performances were given by Alexey Markov, a Duma secretary with a sumptuous baritone voice, and Yaroslav Abaimov, a high-class Innocente, with a frank and well-supported tenor accent, as well as fully convincing stage presence. All the others were professional: Lilly Yorstad, Anna Denisova, Agnieszka Rehlis, Stanislav Trofimov, Alexander Kravets, Maria Barakova.
The La Scala chorus conducted by Alberto Malazzi was impressive.
Great success for all the performers in the final calls.