Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Gerhard Siegel, Markus Eiche, Anatoli Kotscherga; Bayerisches Staatsorchester,Kent Nagano. Production: Calixto Bieito.
Alexander Tsymbalyuk, from Ukraine, brings to the role of Boris Godunov a pair of trusting eyes of faraway sky blue, set in the broad, pallid mask of a questing prince from the Arabian Nights. What is more, he never snarls or barks or chews the scenery. Many have portrayed Boris as a fallen angel — but as an angel in exile, not fallen? His lustrous bass flows with a sable smoothness and reserves of tenderness that only deepen his aura of lonely innocence. Chances are you have never seen an interpretation remotely like this one, and its magnificence takes a while to sink in. By the scene of his death, apparently by poison, Tsymbalyuk has you in his thrall.
Sad to say, the show surrounding this quietly but profoundly unconventional portrayal piles cliché upon cliché. The hand on the wheel belongs to Catalan director Calixto Bieito, a name synonymous with onstage violence and deviant sex. Here violence predominates, much of it pure distraction. Bored soldiers brutalize the populace because they can. The blowsy Innkeeper at her pushcart (Okka von der Damerau, singing in burgundy tones) beats the daylights out of her tiny daughter for no reason, then blows away a hapless policeman. The Simpleton (the plangent Kevin Conners) enters with a latrine bucket over his head to suffer torture and death at the hands of an adolescent harpy of the streets, who graduates from a metal spike to a pistol.
Filmed at the Bavarian State Opera in February 2013, shortly after its premiere, Bieito's Boris presents Mussorgsky's compact original version of 1869, predating the addition of the Polish act. As you may have guessed, any trappings of Russia ca. 1600 have been ruthlessly suppressed. The dark, misty, largely empty stage evokes a present-day dystopia without borders. The props include attaché cases; dollar bills; placards showing the faces of perhaps a dozen current or recent heads of state, the younger Bush, Sarkozy and, yes, Putin, among them. The wardrobe of the all-male power elite runs to dark business-suits. (Boris expires in such a suit, minus his shoes and socks.) The lower classes might have come straight from a workers' uprising. For the women at the Kremlin — Eri Nakamura's bright-voiced, grief-crazed Princess Xenia (who drinks), Heike Grötzinger's impeccably corporate Nurse — there's age- and status-appropriate couture. Many mezzos have played Feodor, the crown prince, but not as the frisky Yulia Sokolik does, sporting a blond braid and the uniform of a parochial school for girls, down to the pleated plaid skirt.
The ensemble overall is remarkable. Anatoli Kotscherga, in his time a ranking Boris, appears as the monk Pimen, waving a palsied hand. His instrument is ravaged, but his narration of crimes and miracles burns with the flame of truth. Vladimir Matorin, another top Boris of yesteryear, blows the roof off as the Falstaffian mendicant Varlaam. Following Tsymbalyuk's lead, Markus Eiche's Schelkalov and Gerhard Siegel's Shuisky favor a legato line seldom heard in this repertoire. Sergey Skorokhodov's sunny timbre and sharp projection lend his Grigori (a.k.a. the false Dmitri) a glamorous heroic dimension that evidently interests Bieito very little. As Boris expires in the Kremlin boardroom, Grigori is at work in an adjacent bedroom, methodically smothering and breaking the necks of the imperial family.
In his final production as music director of the Munich house, Kent Nagano takes a cool, analytical view of the score, as evident in the orchestral playing as in the singing. Quieter sequences are often remarkable for subtle undercurrents of anxiety, but at the climaxes, he holds back. By the same token, ears accustomed to the primal emotionalism, dynamic range and fearless attack of the great Russian choruses may find the Bavarian forces tame. A like complaint might be leveled at Tsymbalyuk, I suppose, but that would be to miss his message entirely.