Samuel Johnson's celebrated one-liner about Milton's "Paradise Lost" -- "None ever wished it longer than it is" -- all too often applies to performances of Modest Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" as well. This brooding, sunless opera wins us over slowly, by sheer insistence, and if one doesn't exactly look forward to a fresh performance with the eagerness granted to, say, the theater works of Mozart, Rossini or Strauss, the fact remains that only a calloused heart can withstand Mussorgsky's laborious and terrible urgency.
Right now the Kirov Opera is in town from Russia with its elemental Music Director Valery Gergiev, and -- in the true spirit of Johnson -- they have made "Boris" shorter than it is. Last night, the troupe presented Mussorgsky's original -- and virtually unheard -- 1869 version at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The seven scenes were offered without intermission. Much familiar material was lost (including the "Polish act" and any semblance of an important female role, both of which were added in the composer's second edition from the early 1870s), but the score retains its fierce, monolithic power.
An onion dome floats above the stage in the coronation scene of the Kirov Opera's "Boris Godunov."
(Photos Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)
Spotting flaws in Mussorgsky's baggy structures is as easy and irrelevant as pointing out technical shortcomings in a Dostoevsky novel. These "faults" are so closely aligned to rare and abundant virtues (indeed, they are essentially synonymous) that it is best to leave well enough alone, to take "Boris" for what it is and to look for tidiness elsewhere.
As opposed to the so-called "Kirov Spectacular" that is also being presented here this week -- a long medley of opera and ballet that sounds slapdash and disheveled -- in "Boris," the Kirov offers provincial playing in the best sense of that much-misunderstood word. It has become increasingly difficult to tell the great orchestras of America from the great orchestras of Europe, but this was clearly a voice from the East -- raw, fierce, largely unassimilated, sometimes abrasive, always fascinating.
The production, with direction by Victor Kramer and sets by George Tsypin, was introduced in 2002 to controversy. It is certainly modernist -- an onion dome hovers above the stage like a disembodied strawberry and people float onto the stage riding what look like slices of cheesecake. Yet, curiously, the cumulative effect is in keeping with the mixture of bleak fancy and prophetic seriousness that characterizes "Boris."
It was hard to believe that one was hearing the same musicians who stumbled aimlessly through the "Kirov Spectacular." Here, the chorus was magnificent -- it had as much unity as one could have asked for, yet there was the sense that it remained a collection of distinctly individual voices, which stood out from one another like glistening strands in a sonic tapestry.
Vladimir Vaneev proved a suitably haunted Boris, propelled to power he is not capable of wielding (the words of the murderous French Jacobin Saint-Just came to mind -- nobody can rule guiltlessly). Mikhail Kit, as the monk Pimen, sang with a voice trembling with character and hard-earned wisdom. Nikolai Gassiev was a firm, authoritative Shuisky, and Oleg Balashov sang the role of Dmitry the Pretender (known as "Grigory" for most of the opera) with a brimming ardor. Vasily Gerello, Dmitry Voropaev, Gennady Bezzubenkov, Viktor Vikhrov, Liubov Sokolova, Alexei Tannovitsky, Mikhail Gavrilov and Tatiana Borodina provided worthy, tightly knit support.
But it was Gergiev's show. If one was unusually aware of Mussorgsky's constrained sense of rhythm, the score also took on an irresistible gravity. And, amid the darkness were prismatic shades of orchestral color and an unflagging energy in Gergiev's delivery. Moreover, throughout the evening, one had that essential sense of a genuine ensemble working toward a unified end, instead of just a group of contracted players fulfilling a gig. Everybody in this "Boris" shared in its world.
The opera will be repeated tonight and tomorrow afternoon. If you can find a way through whatever winter weather descends on Washington this weekend (the forecasters were promising the usual avalanche), this "Boris" is well worth breaking out the snowshoes for.