Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía
Rising Tsar: Anastassov as Boris in Valencia, with Khudyakov as Feodor
Courtesy Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía
There are a handful of opera roles that require extraordinary seasoning — the personal and musical maturity that singers achieve through years of growth as artists and human beings. Isolde is one, Otello another. But few parts in the standard opera repertory require a bigger quota of personal and musical maturity than Boris Godunov.
Bulgarian bass Orlin Anastassov started singing Mussorgsky's despot when he was in his mid-twenties. Now, at thirty-five, Anastassov is on his way to becoming the Boris of the twenty-first century. His voice is robust across the staff, with a glorious middle range; his delivery is forceful and idiomatic, his body language dignified and elegant. Anastassov's performance as the tsar is still not completely there, however: his low notes need more sustained weight, and the magnetism, gravitas and emotional impact of a truly great Godunov are currently just beyond his reach.
Perhaps the problem with the dramatically unsatisfying Boris performances that opened this year's season at Valencia's Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía did not lie solely with the protagonist. The production (seen Nov. 26), by the brilliant Russian theater and film director Andrei Konchalovsky, did not create an adequate atmosphere for its Boris. Once again, it seems that Valencia has succumbed to the magic name of a famous film director; this Boris marked the fourth time in six years that a director known better for film than for opera was charged with the season-opening production in Valencia. In previous years, Valencia has welcomed Werner Herzog (Parsifal), Chen Kaige (Turandot) and Carlos Saura (Carmen). Each of these artists had interesting things to say, but all delivered productions that fell short of their best work for the cinema — and of the standard set by seasoned opera régisseurs.
Like Herzog, director Konchalovsky (Siberiade, Maria's Lovers, Runaway Train, The Inner Circle) has some theater and opera experience in his CV — including War and Peace at the Met and the Mariinsky. But his Boris, despite its Russian origins, did not leave me with the feeling that Konchalovsky had any affinity for his material or the genre itself.
The lavish costumes by Carla Teti, naturalistic and exact in detail, were in direct contrast to the cold, gray, industrial-looking sets designed by Graziano Gregori. European opera productions are now full of this particular combination of period-conscious costumes and abstract sets, but there are limits to everything: in this Boris, the procession of Kremlin aristocrats clad in furs and jewels looked out of place on a set that resembled an abandoned airport hangar. In any case, Konchalovsky's scheme for the comings and goings of the opera's large choir of peasants, boyars or soldiers was an amateurish, inelegant operation.
Musically, things went much better. This Boris marked the beginning of Valencia's first season without Lorin Maazel as music director. Maazel, who served Valencia for six seasons, has been succeeded by Omer Meir Wellber, a thirty-year-old Israeli-born maestro. Wellber, who had previously led Aida, Eugene Onegin and L'Elisir d'Amore in Valencia, infused vigor, flexibility and warmth into the score of Boris, realizing much of the magic of this work's singular orchestral palette. Wellber's youth is inescapable, despite the maturity of his performance: when he came out onstage to acknowledge the public's applause after the performance, he looked impossibly small and juvenile, almost lost in the cohort of robust, fur-dressed Russian singers.
The almost all-Russian cast did much to instill warmth and truth into the production. The scene in the tsar's quarters with Boris and his children reached a high level of pathos and artistic accomplishment. It helped that Anastassov sounded and looked like a worried, caring young father; that Ilona Mataradze's crystalline soprano made her a model Xenia; and that boy alto Ivan Khudyakov was a lovable Feodor. In a large and generally very competent cast, seasoned bass Vladimir Matorin imbued his Varlaam with humor and authority, and veteran character tenor Konstantin Pluzhnikov contributed a precisely pathetic Shuisky. Tenor Nikolai Schukoff, as the False Dimitri, brought vibrant musical intensity to a mostly static Tschudov monastery scene.
The version of Boris used in this production — the original 1869 score, with the addition of the Kromy Forest scene from the 1872 revision — does not finish with the Fool lamenting the fate of mother Russian in the hands of despots. Konchalovsky and Wellber chose to end their Boris with the tsar's death scene, so the last moments of the evening sounded full of promise — an exciting young singer and the glorious Valencia Orchestra under the direction of another very young, yet rapidly developing, artist.
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