Monday, October 8, 2012

Boris Godunov in Madrid

Boris Godunov, Teatro Real in Madrid, October 3 2012

Director ..... Johan Simons
Conductor ..... Hartmut Haenchen

Boris Godunov ..... Günther Groissböck
Fyodor ..... Alexandra Kadurina
Yenia ..... Alina Yarovaya
Yenia's nurse ..... Margarita Nekrasova
Prince Shuisky ..... Stefan Margita
Chelkalov ..... Yuri Nechaev
Pimen ..... Dmitry Ulyanov
Grigory ..... Michael König
Marina Mnishek ..... Julia Gertseva
Rangoni ..... Evgeny Nikitin
Varlaam ..... Anatoli Kotscherga
Misail ..... John Easterlin
Innkeeper ..... Pilar Vázquez
Simpleton ..... Andrey Popov
Nikitich ..... Károly Szemerédy
Mitiushka ..... Fernando Radó
Court Boyar ..... Antonio Lozano
Boyar Khrushchyov ..... Tomeu Bibiloni
Levitski ..... Ángel Rodríguez
Chernikovski ..... Rodrigo Álvarez

Coro y Orquesta Titulares del Teatro Real
Children Chorus - JORCAM

It is always a great pleasure to visit Teatro Real, its impressive interior that must be the most beautiful of all the opera houses in the world.
Nowadays --or better, since Gerard Mortier is running the house-- Teatro Real is not only the place where you can spend some quality time wandering inside numerous and beautifully decorated royal rooms, but it is also the place where you can see the top class opera productions in which the creative sparkle comes first.

The architecture of the interior of Teatro Real is a combination of the traditional royal  beauty and the modern ways to prefer the sharp angles and bright colors to the curved arcs and dark mahogany. That symbiosis of styles in fact reflects the theatrical character of the house: a modern artistic expression inhabits the traditionally set environment. As far as opera is concerned, Madrid is today one of the most exciting places when it comes to the artistic quality of what is created today worldwide (it's up there with Berlin, Brussels, Basle, or Amsterdam, Dresden, Lyon, or Milan, and it seems Zurich is catching up too).

New Boris Godunov is just one in a series of events "Made in Madrid" to back the above statement. Before I discuss this particular production, I must add a comment: despite the fact that Teatro Real is the least  subsidized big opera house in Europe, the current economical situation in Spain makes it virtually impossible to stay afloat. Mortier recently complained in the press that the deficit of Teatro Real is likely to considerably increase in 2012 which might compromise that realization of a number of their projects. I  read that, for example, the planned co-production of The Magic Flute --with Beliner Philharmoniker performing--  might be in peril if something significant and fast is not done to help Teatro Real.

Johan Simons and Hartmut Haenchen

Johan Simons is a very well known theater director, and relatively well known in the world of opera. One of his operatic ventures is recorded and can be found  on DVD.  During the Mortier era at the Paris Opera he produced Fidelio and Simon Boccanegra, which were obviously killed by the very conservative French critics, while the public was quite polarized to those who passionately loved/hated the shows.
Mortier has that rare ability to recognize something special in a director and then to invite him to produce an opera that you would not spontaneously associate with the style of that particular  director. It's therefore a risk --because the project ejects the director out of his comfort zone-- but when it works the result is an artistic blast.

Boris Godunov by Johan Simons is surprising in that it is a narrative production even if it is not linear, or unidimensional.  The show is very well structured, all musicians are truly brilliant (Hartmut Haenchen rocks!).... and yet on the way back I kept asking myself why the show  ended so unspectacularly. Each production of Boris that I could see in my life always ended with a cascade of enthusiastic bravos, while here it ended by a few sporadic bravos, and with polite albeit generous rounds of applause. I believe the transition from the Boris' death scene to the Kromy scene somehow killed the emotional wave we were all surfing on. The emotional intensity of the scene with Boris diving into the madness that eventually sends him to death should have actually closed the show. If it was organized in that way, I bet the public would be shouting Bravo's like it always does. Instead, I could feel the last part was flushing away the emotion that was built by Groissböck et al and did not leave us time to contemplate the faith of that man, or those who surrounded him before and after his fall. So yes, I loved the show but I thought the climax was definitely missing. This is my only objection to the show.

Simons transposed the action to an indefinite place today. The stage looks like a set of big concrete buildings after some major disaster -- a hurricane, a civil war... The intention is obviously to suggest that, after suffering the  consequences of destruction, people are easier to manipulate. They believe a messianic character --a man of providence-- would come from somewhere and take them out of their collective misery. This situation obviously leaves a lot of space to all sorts of crooks, manipulators, false prophets, and lead to the perversion by which the destiny of people is intertwined with that of inapt but ambitious crooks, fake prophets, mafiosos or... or corrupted politicians... i.e. those who succeeded in getting into power.
When put in its historical perspective The novel/opera Boris Godunov is in fact outrageously politically incorrect.

So when the curtain rises you could see this desolated huge white buildings framing the depth of the stage, and the suffering people crawling towards the front edge of the stage. As they reach the front edge, a shelf-like, and a very well lit, structure rises from beneath the floor, the stage assistants come to roll out a red carpet, and we soon see Chelkalov --elegantly dressed to exacerbate the contrast with people-- carrying a painting of Boris, i.e. portrait of the man who could bring back hope to the starving people. And the story begins...

The political elite (that walk in/around that large shelf-looking frame that occupies the center of the stage) is hand in hand with church. A patriarch, in particular, will pompously walk among politicians (Boyars) on the red carpet.

First 10 minutes actually define the stage organization of the show: everything that happens with Boris, on the tsar's court or his apartments, it happens on (or close to) that large structure that rises up from beneath the stage. Otherwise, the story is about the suffering people of Russia, and about Grigory whose life is unrolled in front of us: from his escape from  the monastery to conquering the crown of Russia, via his trip to Poland where he convinces the greedy daughter of the General to help him with troops to reach to his goal. Grigory is a monk whose benign ambition to explore life outside the monastery becomes a tragedy for Russia. His adventurous spirit soon transforms into a toxic desire for power. In the end he marches in Moscow as a leader of the gang but gets the crown.  That's how far could be a monk from a terrorist...

The story happens on three levels: (i) A personal drama of Boris Godunov who, as a person and as a father in particular, cannot bear with his past, namely the fact that he killed a child in order to become the Tsar; (ii) A theatrical demonstration that power is intoxicating and it brings out the worst in people: ambitious greedy individuals (populist politicians?) thrive in the vacuum created by political crisis and are ready to do whatever it takes to come into power [hello to Naomi Klein]; (iii) A tale of ordinary people who are constantly manipulated and exploited by corrupted rulers/politicians, but at the same time kept docile by the church.
All three elements are very well elaborated in the show. I cannot obviously recount the whole production, but will only mention a few details that I thought were particularly poignant.

Simons' theater is a theater of concepts. His intention is not to just narrate and amuse the crowd by a "nice show". His intentions are to engage the audience and make people reflect farther than the image they see.

The scene of coronation of Boris was happening on the red carpet. Patriarch is all flashy, wearing a huge golden cloak, but soon after the ceremony was over, they all step down, go to the room --away from the public eye-- and while Boris is genuinely overwhelmed, Patriarch quickly unglue his long beard, take off his heavy coat, puts the crown down and sits on a sofa to chat with other persons...
"Image is everything!" All the coronation ceremony, the outfits..., it's all made to fool people. [A parallel with our 21st century is hopefully obvious]

Each scene with Boris actually portrays a man who is progressively consumed by guilt that would later turn into a total madness. In each scene a number of children (ghosts) populating the abandoned buildings surrounding the stage was getting larger...

The episode with Shuisky, I thought, was wonderfully staged. He [Shuisky] could be seen as éminence grise of any large political party. He was the strongest supporter of Tsar Godunov and actually helped him to come into power, but once he felt the signs of Boris' weaknesses he turned the party members (Boyars who in this production look like modern business-suit wearing politicians/ministers) against Boris, and tricked Boris to his own decline.  In the end the question is: is Shuisky the most clever person in the plot or is he as dirty as everyone else? It is a very debatable point and Simons wisely avoids painting Shuisky as positive or negative a character.

Simons quite obviously has a soft spot for Boris. Despite all his flaws, from the moment we see him, Boris is a genuine man, a man who --fascinated by his title-- honestly started to believe that he was indeed a man of providence for Russia. That's where his tragedy begins because at the same time a bug of guilt from his past starts nibbling his soul. In this production Boris is not protective of Fyodor because of his paranoia that someone could do to his son what he did to Tsarevich. It's the opposite: seeing his son reaching the age of Tsarevich made his guilt transforming into obsession and eventually madness. 

To be perfectly honest, I am not fan of the Polish Act. Boris Godunov opera is not more dramatically compelling for the Polish Act, and it is musically less interesting than the rest of the opera. I can understand that the singers are happy to regroup during this Act before returning in Act Four. Otherwise I could perfectly with this Act left out.
The colors and the pretty chorus scenes in this Act were enjoyable though, as well as the portrait of ultra-ambitious Marina.  Julia Gertseva was very good, Evgeny Nikitin --who I was glad to see back on stage, after that stupid episode in Bayreuth-- sang very well too,  even if somewhat underpowered with respect to his usual vocal size.

Haenchen opted for the original version from 1872, but added an extra-scene from the very first version of Boris Godunov (1869). That extra scene further exposed a superb quality of the choruses. The orchestra was absolutely majestic. Haenchen enjoyed playing with leitmotivs and played with them in his refined sense for drama. His delightfully dramatic conducting of Boris Godunov is a rarity. Sadly this opera is often conducted with heavy fugues as if portraying Raskolnikov and not Godunov. Haenchen audibly loves the score and gives it class it deserves. Bravo!

Günther Groissböck is only 36, and marks his title role debut in Madrid. It was a well calculated risk which definitely paid off. His musicality and lyricism in his interpretation were totally in phase with a way Simons portrayed Boris in this production. His lack of power in the beginning [well it's understandable knowing that there are 9 shows in this run] was a false alert as he gains in volume later in the show and brings his best in the death scene. His kind of singing of Boris is very close to the interpretation by René Pape. 36 is young for Boris, but I am sure his musicality and his singing intelligence will help him last long among the top opera singers. Great job!

Pimen and Boris - Ulyanov and Groissböck

The crowd needed a Russian bass narrating the story, and they were rewarded by that richly toned, powerful and authoritative voice of Dmitry Ulyanov. He is born to sing the role of Pimen and he got the biggest round of cheers. Another Russian (OK, Ukrainian) bass was Anatoli Kotscherga whose  Varlaam is simply impeccable. Interestingly, before his major singing scene [Inn on the Lithuanian border] he was in the role of Patriarch. We saw him stripping the beard off, taking the coat off and later he appears as Varlaam.  I guess that was the Simons' way to express his own appreciation for the cleric authority...
Yuri Nechaev did not have much to sing but what he did was remarkable.

Andrei Popov as "Simpleton"

Among tenors, Stefan Margita does a great job as Shuisky. Losing weight evidently did not diminish the power or alertness of his voice. The crowd particularly appreciated the long notes, sang in full voice and with lots of energy,  by Andrei Popov. He does sound amazing and I hope we will soon see him in a bigger role. 
Michael König is like Chris Ventris -- always good, reliable, and scenically irreproachable although [singingwise] this role (Grigory) has been killed by Aleksandrs Antonenko.
All other singers in this homogeneous quality cast were very good too.

So yes, that was an excellent Boris night in Madrid, after which I feel a desire to improve my Russian. The language is stunningly beautiful.

More production photos:

Marina and Grigory

Last moments of Boris Godunov

My photos:


Alina Yarovaya, Alexandra Kadurina, and Yuri Nechaev

Yevgeny Nikitin, Andrei Popov and Anatoli Kotscherga

Dmitry Ulyanov

Stefan Margita + Ulyanov & Nikitin

Julia Gertseva and Micheal König

Günther Groissböck Godunov

Maestro Haenchen visibly happy


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the insightful review of what sounds like a very interesting production! Glad to hear of such a fine cast under Haenchen, as well.