Calixto Bieito’s production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov recorded at the Bayerische Staatsoper in 2013 is, unsurprisingly, strong stuff. The central concept is that the political classes “don’t give a fig” for ordinary people and that’s as true , or truer, now than in early modern Russia. In such a world, where the people are manipulated into acting as their “betters” demand, is it possible for a person like Boris, who has risen to supreme power through manipulation and violence, to have a conscience?
Bieito explores this by setting the piece in the present. It’s dark and grungy. When it’s not dark and grungy, it’s tacky. Riot police coerce the crowd into demanding that Boris become tsar. The mob hold up placards, distributed by the police, of contemporary world leaders. Boris’ daughter is drunk or stoned. There is casual violence and sadism from beginning to end; from the beating of a protestor in the first scene through the whipping of the Innkeeper’s daughter to the elimination of Boris’ children in the last. Some of it is really quite shocking. Also, this is the original seven scene version, with no Polish act, which adds to the unremitting bleakness.
There’s no resolution. Boris dies from a guilty conscience as his children are murdered and his closest confidantes prepare to ingratiate themselves with his successor. Is it credible that Tony Blair or George W. Bush or Vladimir Putin would crumble in this way? Is it credible that they could feel remorse over a single killing? Bieito doesn’t offer an answer. In some ways I see what he is doing. In others I find it really disturbing. And perhaps that’s the point.
Musically it’s very good. The cast is a mix of Slavic and German singers with Alexander Tsymbalyuk a powerful presence in the title role. Of the rest of the cast I was most impressed by Anatoli Kotscherga’s Pimen, Sergey Skorokhobov’s Grigory and Tareq Nazmi’s really skeezy Mityucha. But really this is an ensemble opera and everyone, chorus included, pulls together in support of the director’s vision which is also ably supported by Kent Nagano’s focussed conducting and the excellent Munich orchestra.
Andy Sommer’s video direction is pretty conventional. He’s challenged by a large, mostly very dark, set and it’s no surprise that he pulls out the usual bag of TV director tricks. It’s not offensive. On DVD, the picture, recorded in HD, is very good considering the challenges and the Dolby surround sound is very crisp there is also a stereo option). There’s also a Blu-ray option. There aren’t any extras but besides a synopsis and track listing the booklet contains an interesting interview with Bieito. Subtitles are French, German and English.
I’m not sure this is Bieito at his absolute best but it is a thought provoking and quite rewarding production given a very good realization by the forces in Munich.