JAMES MORRIS IS SUPERB AS BORIS GODUNOV AT FLORIDA GRAND OPERA
By Lawrence Budmen
Modest Mussorgsky was one of history's true music originals. Although he lacked formal training, Mussorgsky was a path breaking experimental composer. Rather than emulate Western romanticism, he produced a new kind of vocal writing based on the sounds and patterns of Russian speech. Mussorgsky fused this new form of vocal declamation with the large scale French grand opera tradition (exemplified by Meyerbeer). The result was "Boris Godunov - part spectacle, part historical pageant, and powerful music drama. This epic work has been hailed as Russia's national opera.
Based on an 1830 play by Alexander Pushkin, the opera is set in 16th century Russia. It is the story of Tsar Boris who has attained power by arranging the murder of Tsarevich Dimitri. When a pretender to the throne leads a revolution, Boris's guilt turns to madness. As he dies, he proclaims his son Fyodor the new Tsar.
Mussorgsky's original score was revised and expanded several times. The original 1869 version was a tightly constructed sequence of scenes in one act. In 1872 Mussorgsky expanded the score to three acts. The problem with the first version was its unrelieved sense of gloom. In the revised version, the composer added a central Polish act with a vibrant ballroom scene to provide musical contrast. He also expanded the tenor role of Grigori and added an important female (mezzo-soprano) role - the Polish Princess Marina. A major problem was Mussorgsky's orchestration which was thin and lacking in instrumental variety. This version is difficult to produce in a large opera house due to the lack of orchestral underpinning. In 1896 Nicholai Rimsky-Korsakov re-orchestrated the opera. Although he was a brilliant instrumental composer, Rimsky-Korsakov changed Mussorgsky's harmonic structure. Much of what was daring and original in Mussorgsky's visionary opera was made to sound conventional and mundane by Rimsky-Korsakov. His version has largely been discredited and has rarely been produced by major opera houses in the last decade.
In 1940 Dimitri Shostakovich produced an opulent new orchestration which remained true to Mussorgsky's daring harmonies and his somber musical vision. More recently there have been stimulating editions by the Polish composer Karol Rathaus, the Russian born conductor Igor Buketoff, and the British conductor and musicologist David Lloyd Jones. All of these versions remain close to Mussorgsky's original musical concept.
The Florida Grand Opera presented a new production of "Boris Godunov" in March, 2002 at Dade County Auditorium in Miami. The opera was grandly staged. There was some excellent singing, but this production let Mussorgsky's opera down in two very crucial areas - the musical edition and the musical direction from the podium. The opera chose to present the composer's first (1869) version which lacks musical variety and does not have a leading female role. Why did they choose to present Rimsky-Korsakov's 1896 version of the score? This orchestration seriously misrepresents the opera.
There is more beauty, pathos, and eloquence in this score than conductor Stewart Robertson drew from the music. Although the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra played the score efficiently, Robertson plodded through scene after scene - failing to illuminate Mussorgsky's musical discourse.
Veteran director Lotfi Mansouri staged a traditional but highly effective production. Robert Dahlstrom's set designs were often striking. The entire production was greatly aided by the atmospheric lighting designed by Todd Hensley. The concluding Kromy Forest scene - with its blood red backdrop - was memorable.
One of the finest elements in this production was the splendid singing of the chorus. Mussorgsky painted a vivid musical image of the suffering Russian people through his choral writing. He wanted the chorus to be a major protagonist. The music that he penned for these larger than life choral actors is stirring, moving, and beautiful. It is also extremely complex and difficult to perform. Chorus Master Bernard McDonald has worked wonders with the Florida Grand Opera chorus. (The Scottish born McDonald is the former assistant Chorus Master of the New York City Opera.) The full throated, vibrant choral singing was a tribute to McDonald's skill and expertise.
The title role of Tsar Boris has long been a showcase for great bass voices - Fyodor Chaliapin, Ezio Pinza, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Cesare Siepi, Boris Christoff, Jerome Hines, and Nicolai Ghiaurov to name a few. Add James Morris (who sang Boris in this production) to that list. Morris has long been a highly versatile singer. While best known as the finest Wagnerian bass-baritone of our time, Morris easily encompasses the varied stylistic and vocal demands of Mozart, Verdi, and Benjamin Britten. As Boris Godunov, Morris brought his dark toned vocal velvet and charismatic stage presence to this pivotal role. Unlike some previous interpreters, his characterization was not over the top. He brought subtle restraint to his scenes which made the final tragedy all the more powerful. His soft singing had memorable beauty and poignancy. The beautiful vocalism and musical intelligence of his performance proved again that Morris is not just a singer. He is a true artist.
As the monk Pimen, Kevin Langan sang with a rich bass voice and enacted the role with dignity. At the March 16, 2002 performance, Langan celebrated his 1000th professional operatic performance. His voice has grown in depth and resonance over the years. This performance gave evidence that he may be ready for the heavyweight basso repertoire. Perhaps Langan is a future Boris Godunov?
The other truly distinguished performance came from French tenor Pierre Lefebrvre as the Holy Simpleton. He sang the final lament for Mother Russia with near perfect intonation and a simple, direct sincerity that was deeply moving. As the conniving Prince Shuisky, tenor Allan Glassman was properly sinister. He vocalized the role skillfully. As Grigori Otrepiev and, later, the false Dimitri, Jeffrey Springer revealed a rather unsubtle tenor voice and a strong stage presence. As the monk Varlaam, Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov gave a rousing account of the "Town of Kazan" aria. Standouts in the supporting cast were the excellent baritone Thomas Barrett as Andrei Schelkhalov; the appealingly light voiced soprano Sarah Miller as Xenia; and the lovely singing and lively characterization of soprano Audrey Babcock as Tsarevich Fyodor.
Much of the drama and power of "Boris Godunov" was evident in the colorful tableaux of this production. What was lacking was the strong musical leadership that could illuminate Mussorgsky's masterpiece. There was considerable compensation in the superb performance of James Morris.