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Борис Годунов

available at Amazon
M.Musorgsky, Boris Godunov (1869 & Rimsky Korsakov editions),
V.Gergiev, Kirov, Soloists

available at Amazon
M.Musorgsky, Boris Godunov (1872 'R.K.' Edition),
V.Gergiev, Kirov, Soloists

Valery Gergiev is a common guest in Washington (and a friend of Alberto Villar's, whose fortunes seems to have improved enough to have sponsored his visit) and brought the Kirov Opera and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre to the Opera House at the Kennedy Center. Apart from Cinderella and a rather odd "Kirov Spectacular" hodgepodge of a program, he brought Modest Musorgsky's (usually misspelled with two s's) greatest work, Boris Godunov. The opera is based on Pushkin's drama and was staged in its rarely seen "original" version, that is, the unedited 1869 version in which women have just barely more import than in Billy Budd. A good synopsis and explanation of the differences of the two versions can be found at the Stanford University Opera Web site.

The opera (Tim Page thought so, too) was a stunning success. From the oboe's opening statement to the fainting, soft, and spaced-out drum beats at the very end of it, Gergiev had his delightfully wild, coherent, and even scrawny (in a very appropriate way) sounding forces under complete control. He reigned them in when they were about to get too excited, and he pushed them on if they ever needed any - though I doubt that was ever necessary last night. The occasional breath of Wagner (in particular Der Fliegende Holländer) often clashed immediately with the particular Russian sounds of the score - chromatically dense and perhaps difficult to digest at first hearing.

Boris, the opera, came in seven scenes, without intermission and mercifully shorter than the usual fare with its superimposed love story. It was the first time that I got to see the work live, and it was also the first time that I was thoroughly convinced by it. The Kirov's traveling set—all light and foldable—was exquisite, and not just taking the restrictions into account. Boris, the Tsar, stunned upon entry with a great costume: a coat of woven iron wire, somewhere between jewel-encrusted beehive, birdcage, and iron maiden. In the background hovered an onion-shaped dome, reminiscent of the tsar's crown. (It also looked like it might have housed "I Dream of" Jeannie.)

Tsar Boris, sung by Vladimir Vaneyev, had a powerful and clear organ, dramatically captivating. Meanwhile, the Kirov's gong- and bell-people in the pit had more work cut out for them than an average Nieblung. Cling, dang, dong it went to scene three, where Pimen the monk was endowed with the voice of brilliant bass Mikhail Kit. Dimitri, the Pretender (a.k.a. novice Grigory) was Oleg Balashov, whose tenor voice came from the the back of the chest (chin firmly down - adding to the slightly restrained quality often heard in Russian tenors), was remarkable, too.

To be sure, there was no weak spot in this production. Gennady Bezzubenkov as Varlaam, the drunken monk, Vladimir Veneyev's Boris, Mikhail Kit, as mentioned, and the treble Mihkail Gavrilov, playing and singing the role of Tsarevitch Fedor deserve special reckognition for their outstanding contribution, both vocally and dramatically. I have never before been able to stand (much less like) children on stage - here I did. There were no stage hawks in the choir, no embarrassingly stiff "opera acting". While Tsar Boris got subtly madder and madder, the Tsarevitch acted so naturally that it was difficult to believe he was acting at all. Shy and accepting, slightly uncomfortable but confident, mildly bored, quiet, singing as though he was in his own bedroom, he delivered a most remarkable performance. (In his running around he shortly imitated an airplane... the only historical inaccuracy I could detect. Or, perhaps, it was a bird he imitated.) Alexey Steblianko's Shuisky was fine, too, but outdone amid his even more impressive colleagues.

The costumes and the lighting contributed magnificently to the complete success with stunning effects. The hallucination scene included 18 of those hollow onion domes cum bubbled crowns... martian-like in how they crept up on the Tsar and with their pest-boils neon-lit from the inside. The metallic spider that unfolded in the sublime death scene of Boris (which ends this version of the opera), too, was poignant, not gimmicky. If anything, I could have done without the first scene, which I thought pointless... but that was quickly gotten over with.

If you haven't fallen victim to the Washington hysteria about the couple inches of innocent snow (why does the whole city shut down at the mere sight of a flake), you ought to treat yourself. Tickets are available at

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