[Met Performance] CID:239910
New Production
Boris Godunov {171} Metropolitan Opera House: 12/16/1974.

(An adapted version of the original Mussorgsky orchestration was used for this production.
Review)


Metropolitan Opera House
December 16, 1974
Benefit sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild
for the production funds

New Production


BORIS GODUNOV {171}
Mussorgsky-Mussorgsky

Boris Godunov...........Martti Talvela
Prince Shuisky..........Robert Nagy
Pimen...................Paul Plishka
Grigory.................Harry Theyard
Marina..................Mignon Dunn
Rangoni.................William Dooley
Varlaam.................Donald Gramm
Simpleton...............Andrea Velis
Nikitich................Andrij Dobriansky
Mitiukha................Edmond Karlsrud
Shchelkalov.............Lenus Carlson
Innkeeper...............Batyah Godfrey Ben-David
Missail.................Paul Franke
Officer.................Richard Best
Xenia...................Betsy Norden
Feodor..................Paul Offenkrantz
Nurse...................Cynthia Munzer
Khrushchov..............Robert Schmorr
Lavitsky................Robert Goodloe
Chernikovsky............Charles Anthony
Boyar in Attendance.....Robert Schmorr

Conductor...............Thomas Schippers

Director................August Everding
Set designer............Ming Cho Lee
Costume designer........Peter J. Hall
Choreographer...........George Balanchine

Boris Godunov received thirteen performances this season.

[The original Mussorgsky orchestration was used for this production.]

Production a gift of Mrs. DeWitt Wallace

Review of William Bender in the TIME Magazine of 12/30/74

'BORIS' AT THE MET, AT LAST

Part spectacle, part Sophoclean tragedy, part historical drama, part revolutionary tract, Modest Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" is a truly original epic that brings old Russia startlingly to life. It is the semi-historical tale of a Kremlin politician who attains his country's throne by murdering the czar's only heir, the boy Dimitri. Filled with remorse, fear and delusion, Boris dies a crazed death as a people's revolution, led by a false Dimitri, prepares to overthrow him. Powerfully scored, "Boris" has no peers in Russia and precious few in all of opera. Yet for close to a century Mussorgsky's masterpiece has had a formidable and often cruel rival: of all things, his own work, as later revised by his fellow Russian, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The Metropolitan Opera has been staging "Boris" regularly for more than a half-century. But the new production of the opera last week represented the first time the work had been heard at the Met more or less as Mussorgsky wrote it in 1869 and, when it was rejected by opera officials, rewrote it in 1872.

Says Thomas Schippers who conducted the performance and by now knows both the composers' versions of "Boris" by heart: "Rimsky hardly took any cues at all from Mussorgsky. It is as if Rimsky had found a piano score and orchestrated it, having never seen the orchestration. It's that different."

Incredible Soul: Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the master orchestrators of the post-romantic era. He revised "Boris" at the turn of the century in the conviction that while Mussorgsky's writing had undeniable boldness, originality and even beauty, it was also rough of harmony, incoherent of style and in general not the work of a professional. In truth. Mussorgsky, a civil service clerk, had little formal training but did possess, as Schippers puts it, "an incredible soul, obviously. It had to come out." Rimsky's rich, opulent revision swept the operatic world with the great Russian basso Feodor Chaliapin making the title role practically his own. It was not surprising that many came to assume that Mussorgsky's original work was unperformable.

Conductor Schippers and the Met put the lie to that argument last week in a way that demonstrated all over again what grand opera is supposed to be and mean. Mussorgsky's orchestral writing turns out to be stark, but not as bleak as one had been led to believe. His melodic style is roughhewn and at times commonplace, but never without a specific point. What the new Met production revealed above all was that, amazingly enough, Mussorgsky knew exactly what he was doing. He also made fierce demands on the orchestral players, often asking, say the horns to play in unusually high, tricky registers. These requirements the musician met magnificently in a now explosive, now tender performance powerfully led by Schippers. When Mussorgsky used just two clarinets and two bassoons to accompany the troubled Boris, he had a somber, dry, psychologically adroit sound in mind that was infinitely more effective than the 60 or so strings and winds Rimsky thought sounded better. Mussorgsky used the harp only once - for the lush, quite beautiful scene between the Pretender Dimitri and the Polish princess Marina in Act II. It is a precise effect completely destroyed by Rimsky's use of the harp throughout the opera.

Two years in preparation, the Met's "Boris" was initiated by the late Göran Gentele and carried to brilliant fruition by his successor as general manager Schuyler Chapin. It is easily the triumph of the Met's post-Rudolf Bing era. Chapin has even brought in Choreographer George Balanchine to stage a coolly graceful "polonaise." Ming Cho Lee, 44, responsible for so many splendid New York City Opera sets ("Giulio Cesare, "Don Rodrigo") makes his Met debut with a masterly series of designs that not only touch the eyes but also move the drama forward virtually without pause. Lee's contrasts are myriad. The rough outer walls of Moscow do not prepare one for the tapestried, iconic splendor of the Kremlin rooms. After the gold, becrossed minarets of Old Russia, the Renaissance fashion (all blues and whites) of an already Westernized Poland is breathtaking in its surprise.

The sophisticated stage direction of Germany's August Everding, 46, shows traces of the admirable "Tristan und Isolde" he conceived for the Met in 1971. Everding has an almost TV-like fondness for "clasps,"
achieved through the use of solo spotlights. At key moments, Everding darkens the stage and picks out a character with a single spot. Isolating Boris at the end of the coronation scene is brilliant stagecraft. But giving the Simpleton a sole spot in the forest clearing, at the opera's end, is mere staginess.

Basso Profundo: Save for tenor Harry Theyard's dry-sounding, unathletic Pretender, the cast is just right. Mignon Dunn as Princess Marina is cunningly believable as an ambitious conspirator. Paul Plishka's Pimen is delivered with a basso profondo of enough tensile magnificence to signal a potential Boris. Right now, though, the role is the hot property of Finland's Martti Talvela, a huge (6 ft. 7 in. 260 lbs), nimble, running tackle of a man with an obsessed, Orson Wellesian face. At 39 he has a voice that may lack the steely edge of, say, Chaliapin, Kipnis or even Pinza but compensates with its oval warmth and human shadings. One never doubts that this Boris can be compassionate, a killer or mad. Accomplished without any personal padding of garment or rubberizing of the steps, Talvela's death-throes roll down the stairway from the throne has shocking impact.

This "Boris" is performed entirely in Russian. However one may feel about the need for opera in English, an all-Russian "Boris" is infinitely preferable to Chaliapin singing in Russian and everyone else in Italian, as used to happen at the Met. More important, the singers seem to like singing it in Russian. Why? Because Mussorgsky's vocal writing bobs and weaves, rises and falls to the natural conversational flow of the Russian words. "Boris'" realistic - in a sense unoperatic - style of recitative is perhaps Mussorgsky's greatest innovation and contribution to the future operatic composers. Says Conductor Schippers" "Boris" influenced so many composers - Puccini, Stravinsky, Janácek, even Gian Carlo Menotti. Without it we might not have had a "Pelléas et Mélisande." That is how important I think "Boris" is"

Photograph of Martti Talvela as Boris Godunov by Frank Dunand / Metropolitan Opera Guild.



Added Index Entries for Subjects and Names


Back to short citation(s).