Dallas Opera has taken on one of the monsters of the repertoire for the final production of its 2010-11 season and has emerged with a rare artistic triumph.
Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov of 1874 challenges any company with its length, the difficulty of its vocal and orchestral writing, the sheer magnitude of its concept. And Dallas Opera’s production, which opened Friday night at Winspear Opera House, meets all of those challenges brilliantly.
Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky conceived the basic elements of this production in 1983 for the Royal Opera in London, with sets designed by Nikolas Dvigubsky; it has since traveled the world as the standard version. Peter Lawless, who was Tarkovsky’s assistant for the production in London nearly 30 years ago, directs it again here in Dallas.
While most opera productions strive to achieve a balance between the symbolic and the real, this one succeeds to a rare degree. The relatively large ensemble of dancers, choristers, and supernumeraries fills the stage magnificently. The cast of dozens takes on the appearance of a cast of thousands, writhing in constant turmoil, emerging out of and then melding back into, the dark symmetrical sets. Giant pendulums, bells, and maps appear and disappear. Oppressive masses of red and earth-tones dominate the scenes set in Russia, while varied colors suggest the decadence of the Catholic west in the scenes set in Poland.
Inspired by a chapter of Russian history from about 1600, and by 19th-century Russian poet Alexander Pushkin’s version of that episode, Boris Godunov deals with the psychological self-torture of its title character, a tyrant haunted by guilt and fear. At the same time, it takes on the tragedy and suffering of the Russian people, and, indeed, uncannily foresees Stalinism and the tragedy of Russian history during the Soviet period.
But it’s about the music as well. Mussorgsky’s fiercely muscular score (with one ironically lyrical passage in Act III) was so forward-looking in its day that Rimsky-Korsakov, and then Shostakovich, each took a hand at revising it for their contemporaries. Fortunately, nowadays it’s customary to perform the work with all of Mussorgsky’s glorious barbarisms intact. Conductor Graeme Jenkins called on his characteristic grasp of large musical structure to make every note count. The chorus, trained by longtime Dallas Opera chorus-master Alexander Rom and here more significant than in any other opera in the repertoire, was at its best.
Finally, concerning the soloists, including numerous Russian singers making their Dallas or U.S. debuts: virtually any one of the principals in this magnificent cast would have dominated any other performance. Tenor Evgeny Akimov brought a clear, indefatigable brilliance to the role of the Pretender. Baritone Sergei Leiferkus was deliciously evil as Rangoni. Mezzo-soprano Elena Bocharova brought a gorgeously rich texture to the role of the ambitious Queen Marina. One American singer in particular, contralto Merdith Arwady, was stunning in the secondary role of the Hostess of the Inn. Bass Mikhail Kazakov was impeccable in the title role—towering, raging, and finally collapsing in a work and production that captures the inseparability of personal and political tragedy.
Photos by Karen Almond for the Dallas Opera