Bass Aage Haugland made his first Metropolitan Opera appearance as Boris Godunov last night in the Kennedy Center Opera House. To judge from the audience reaction, it should be the first of many.
Two nights after his subtly understated performance in "Der Rosenkavalier," the young Danish bass adopted a totally different style, larger than life and deliberately spectacular, for his portrayal of the ruthless, guilt-ridden Tsar in Mussorgsky's masterpiece. He towered over the production not only physically (he must be close to 7 feet tall) but musically and melodramatically in his big moments.
Singing with a tone of apparently unlimited depth, Haugland was majestic--like a heroic statue cast in gold--during the coronation scene. He reached terrifying heights of frenzy in the clock scene (which he sang almost entirely on the floor), overturning a large table and tearing down a pair of red velvet drapes in his paroxysms. But he was the most spectacular in the death scene, taking the fall down the stairs from his throne like a professional tumbler and rolling precipitately across the stage to the brink of the orchestra pit.
This is not really the stuff of fine acting, of course, but it is appropriate for Mussorgsky's epic of murder, political intrigue, casual brutality and violent retribution. And in the more subdued moments of the role--the two scenes alone with his son, the passages of quiet, anguished meditation, the striking confrontation with the Simpleton who destroys his self-confidence, refusing to pray for him and calling him "Herod"--Haugland caught precisely the right muted tone, the appropriate gesture.
In their own way, the simple tremor that ran through his body at the Simpleton's words, the shocked recoil of a pace or two, and the way he was hurried offstage by his attendants were more spectacular than the long fall from the throne in his death scene. Vocally, he was both rich and precise, and he shaped words and phrases like a master.
In a sense, Haugland stole the show last night from the Metropolitan Opera chorus, which is really the hero of "Boris Godunov": the long-suffering people of Russia beaten down by ages of despotism and looking constantly, in vain, for a sign of hope or a victim to absorb their pent-up anger.
The Metropolitan production emphasizes the role of the chorus and choreographs it with care. Body language is almost as important as music in this production, and this chorus has the necessary heroic qualities in all dimensions. The sets and costumes are deliberately subdued, sometimes downright drab and sometimes semi-abstract, creating an atmosphere something like the world of Dostoevski at his most despondent.
There are only two spots of brightness, for example, in the coronation scene, which the Bolshoi and most other productions try to make as lavish as possible with a long procession featuring gold ornaments, colorful costumes and brilliantly exotic icons. For the Metropolitan, the only spot of visual brightness is Boris himself, crowned with gold, robed in a long, gold gown and carrying the gold symbols of his power in his hands.
The musical gold of the scene is the voices of the chorus, chanting "Slava, slava, slava" ("glory, glory, glory") to the accompaniment of wildly ringing bells. All else is somber, and around the edge of the crowd lurk the police, armed with whips and clubs, ready to beat back the people at the least sign of trouble.
With its enormous cast, "Boris," which will be repeated April 28, offers many opportunities for a brief moment of glory in supporting roles.
From the first words of the performance--curtly, harshly barked out by Andrij Dobriansky in the role of a police officer--to the final words of despair sung by James Atherton in his brilliant portrayal of the Simpleton, these opportunities are richly exploited by the current cast.
Among those who did the finest work last night were Wieslaw Ochman as the false Dmitri, pretender to the throne; Ara Berberian in the role of the drunken monk Varlaam; Mignon Dunn as Marina; Batyah Godfrey as the hostess in the hilarious but chilling inn scene; and Charlie Coleman as Boris' son.
But the credit for this carefully thought-out, thematically integrated production goes to the entire company, which was well directed by conductor James Conlon. Productions of this quality are what a company like the Metropolitan Opera is--or should be--all about.