An Exceptional Boris

Mussorgsky – Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov – Alexander Tsymbalyuk

Grigori – Sergey Skorokhodov

Pimen – Anatoli Kotscherga

Vasili Shuyski – Gerhard Siegel

Varlaam –Vladímir Matorin

Misail – Ulrich Reß

Fool – Kevin Conners

Andrei Schelkalov – Markus Eiche

Hostess – Okka von der Damerau

Ksenia – Nakamura Eri

Governess – Heike Grötzinger

Fiodor – Yulia Sokolik

Chor und Extrachor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Kent Nagano. 

Stage director – Calixto Bieito. 

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, Saturday, March 2nd, 2013.

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Photo: (C) Wilfried Hösl

Those who visit this site often will know that I am a big fan of Calixto Bieito even to go so far as to say that he is probably the finest opera director out there today.  There are some directors I will go out of my way to avoid, while there are others whose work I will try and see  if I can.  Whereas with Bieito, if there is a new production and I can see it, I’ll do my best to make it possible.  This was my first time at the Bayerische Staatsoper.  The main reason I hadn’t visited before is because their ticketing process is somewhat opaque.  Effectively, one applies in advance and is allocated a seat according to a formula that they have.  Should one apply for a number of productions, they may grant one or none of the applications.  Once the initial applications are done, they open up sales on their website.  I was allocated a seat with a 90% view of the stage.  It was decent enough but at EUR65 I felt somewhat robbed and wish that I had been informed in advance that there was an obstruction because I may well have decided to try for a higher price category.

I was seated in the 2nd Rang in a balcony seat which did have an overhang from the level above.  I mention this because it may have affected my enjoyment of the performance and it is worth reading my thoughts with that in mind.  The previous production I had seen in València used what was effectively an amalgam of different versions.  Tonight, they used an 1868/9 version stripped down to the very basics.  This was problematic in that it failed to give a full impression of the people’s suffering and meant that the very good Bayerische Staatsopernchor didn’t really have much to do following the coronation scene.  Ultimately, I feel that the choice of editions left a big hole in the production, one that Bieito, despite his brilliance, didn’t quite manage to fill.  Having thought deeply about it, I don’t necessarily think it’s the fault of the production, more that the piece in this particular version, as it is stripped down to the very minimum, has several gaps that are not quite filled.

The production itself was certainly inoffensive – there was no nudity, no masturbation, nothing that would offend anyone but there certainly was insight and an ability to penetrate deeply into the souls of the characters.  Having seen the way he orchestrated the crowds so masterfully in his Carmen for example, I felt that Bieito’s direction of the crowd scenes was somewhat rudimentary.  To be honest, in any other director’s hands it would have seemed more than capable, but I was expecting something more, perhaps even more of a sense of the oppressive state that I didn’t quite feel (although that may well be blamed by the distance I was from the stage).  There were some fantastic moments though in the revolution scene for example with the chorus throwing Molotov cocktails at Boris’ palace.  The scene with the taunting of the fool was incredibly powerful and the finale was stunning – I won’t say what happened but it was perhaps only in those last two scenes that I really saw his brilliance.  His direction of individual singers though was wonderfully done, drawing fully-rounded characters from characters who can lack personality.  Ultimately though, I fear that I had set my expectations far too high.  I guess that in any other director’s hands I would have thought it an exceptional production – and it was.  For Bieito though, I didn’t leave the theatre thinking this is the way that I will always see the work as happened when I saw his Ballo, Freischütz, Carmen, Don Giovanni, Armida and Wozzeck for example.  Exceptional perhaps but not quite revelatory as a whole.

Kent Nagano’s conducting was a bit of a mixed bag.  The quieter moments were wonderfully done with playing of extreme delicacy from the Staatsorchester.  Pacing on the whole was fine although there were a number of longueurs, all of which directly attributable to Mussorgsky.  There were some incredibly ravishing sounds coming from the pit which makes it even more of a disappointment that the big moments, such as the coronation scene fell flat.  Coordination between stage and pit went a bit awry at that point (a few sopranos entering early) and the big moments lacked the sweep that they ideally needed.  Perhaps it was Nagano’s intention to create a more intimate, detached atmosphere but there are certainly moments in this score that demand big gestures, with the effect that the first two scenes were a lot more tentative than one might have hoped.

The cast on the whole was extremely good.  Nakamura Eri’s Ksenia was wonderfully done as was Yulia Sokolik’s very feminine Fiodr.  Sergey Skorokhodov’s Pretender Dmitry was the pick of the supporing cast a wonderful line, the tessitura beautifully handled.  Sadly, Anatoli Kotscherga’s Pimen and Gerhard Siegel’s Shiusky were not at their best.  Both had some serious disagreements with the notes (Kotscherga in particular was horribly flat at several points).

The real star of the evening was Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s Boris.  Do make a note of his name because he is heading for greatness.  I had heard him once before, last year in that exceptional Gurrelieder in Vienna.  He made a positive impression then but tonight he was quite simply astonishing.  There was a complete and total identification with the words there but also he completely inhabited the character.  There were so many moments that one could see that he just ‘was’ Boris, for example when he was shaking with fear at the start of part 3 or his incredibly affecting death scene where he seemed  to manage to make the entire auditorium hang on his every word.  The voice itself is exceptionally beautiful in tone but he also manages to display a wide range of emotions precisely without sacrificing that beauty of tone. He is definitely a singer to watch and I feel exceptionally privileged to have seen him in what is likely to become one of his signature roles.

In many ways this was an exceptional evening in the theatre – the staging was excellent, the singing and conducting in many ways superb.  The truth is that this was an amazing show and I recommend that anyone who has the chance to see it does.  There will be a live webcast in July and I will definitely be watching it.

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