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A futuristic Boris at the Berlin Staatsoper

Staatsoper unter den linden
09/20/2006 -  and 23 September, also 15 and 22 March, 2007
Modest Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov
Rene Pape (Boris Godunov), Sylvia Schwarz (Xenia), Felix Walz (Feodor), Rosemarie Lang (Nurse, Hostess), Stephen Rügamer (Shuiskiy), Alfredo Daza (Shchelkalov), Alexander Vinogradov (Pimen), Burkhard Fritz (Grigoriy), Mikhail Petrenko (Varlaam), Peter Menzel (Misail), Florian Hoffmann (Simpleton), Yi Yang (Nikitich, Police Officer), Bernd Zittisch (Mityukha), Juri Bogdanov (Boyar)
Dmitri Tcherniakov (Director and Designer), Mariya Danilova (Costume Designer), Wolfgang Göbbel (Lighting)
Daniel Barenboim (Conductor), Eberhard Friedrich (Chorus Director)
Staatskapelle Berlin, Staatsopernchor

The last time I saw Boris Godunov in Berlin was in 2001 at the Komishe Oper, where it was set in a post-Soviet Russia of confused drabness and opulence. The current Staatsoper production (premiered in December 2005) goes a step farther and sets the work in the near future. The unit set shows a street scene in Moscow, with a grand metro entrance on one side and a sleek coffee bar on the other, a cell phone billboard looming above. Also prominent is a red neon digital calendar that spells out the exact date of each scene, beginning in February, 2012, and continuing through the seven-year span of the opera's action.

The muddle of the first scene is well presented as Nikitich and his helpers distribute sheet music to bewildered members of the public and command them to sing Boris's praise. The children's choir enters wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Boris's portrait. A huge copy of the same portrait is carried on to the stage - upside down. After it is turned right side up it falls forward on top of people. Occupying centre stage is a man trying to restrain his two overactive children. This kind of secondary business is presented throughout the production, working often as an effective and grimly amusing counterpoint to the main action, and sometimes as an annoying distraction. What we get is news documentary-style scenes of civil strife with vignettes of daily life occurring in their midst.

The seven-scene 1869 version of the opera is used, and it is performed "cinematically" without an interval in just two and a quarter hours. For the second scene, Boris's grand desk is wheeled on to the stage, along with television lights and broadcasting equipment. He is thus addressing a TV audience - the chorus is placed in the theatre's balconies, giving a powerful "surround sound" experience. Daniel Barenboim's conducting throughout stressed the most vivid aspects of Mussorgsky's score, and this scene ended with a veritable earthquake from the pit.

Directorial busyness hits its peak in the third scene, when, during Pimen's lengthy narrative, Grigoriy is engaged in the following: he removes his shirt and gives himself a sponge bath, using water from his plastic bottle. He then takes food from his knapsack and prepares a snack, cutting his hand while opening a tin. He also digs a shaving kit out of the knapsack and spreads lather on his face and commences to shave, but is thwarted by the dullness of the razor. All this is played out in front of Boris's desk, where he sits throughout, engaged in reading documents.

In the fourth scene, we are not at an inn but at a snack stand on which is displayed a dozen or so brands of potato chips. Varlaam is wonderfully portrayed and sung by Mikhail Petrenko as a lout wearing a soiled pink Chanel sweatshirt under which he has concealed his cassock. While he sings, the hostess turns on an electric fan which she uses to dry her freshly-polished fingernails. This scene contains one instance when the forward dating of the action doesn't work. The comic action depends on the illiteracy of the policemen who are seeking Grigoriy, and at first they are dependent upon him to read out the description of the fugitve. He tries to mislead them and they turn to Varlaam, who then reads the correct description. The illiteracy of policeman in 1602 is understandable, but not so in the 21st century.

The highlight of the sixth scene was the performance of Florian Hoffmann as the Holy Fool. This young tenor with an attractive voice has played a number of comprimario roles at the Staatsoper - he is a singer to watch for. The scene ends with an explosion, screams and the collapse of the electrical system.

The final scene is one of desperate panic and devastaion. The streets are full of rioting looters amidst corpses and debris. The boyars shred boxes of documents. Xenia enters, beaten and bleeding, and Feodor staggers in with his throat slashed. Shuiskiy is in a total frenzy - and at one bizarre point he brushes his teeth. (This is first time I have seen someone having to sing while brushing his teeth.) His busy-ness doesn't end there: once Pimen has addressed Boris, Shuiskiy strangles him. He then finds another suit of clothes among the debris and changes into it while Boris undergoes his final agony.

Mussorgsky's concluding bars of music hint at some sort of sublimation or benediction. However, the stage picture at the conclusion of this production is very grim indeed - but then there is one small sign of renewal: the digital calendar comes back to life with the date 01.01.0001 - the first day of a new (cleansed?) era.

The only weak link in a very strong cast is the Feodor, sung by a young boy whose voice simply doesn't have the projection of the usual soprano. The three tenors have distinctly contrasting voices, each one appropriate to the character. A similar contast is heard among the many low-voice roles. Rene Pape demonstrates just why he is among today's opera superstars. He has power to spare, but his superlative moment came while expressing Boris's quiet, ultra-intense anguish in the final scene. A few directorial excesses aside, this production is very powerful and emphasizes the expressive freshness and dramatic pertinence of every moment of Mussorgsky's score.

Michael Johnson



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