René Pape in Boris Godunov
(© Ken Howard)
René Pape in Boris Godunov
(© Ken Howard)
It's difficult to imagine a more accomplished modern version of Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov than the one now at the Metropolitan Opera House, conducted by Valery Gergiev with Rene Pape leading a remarkable cast in the title role. Indeed, Met lovers will be hard-pressed to recall when so many big, beautifully cultivated voices filled the plush room.

Pape, commanding in the role which he's presenting in New York City for the first time, plays Boris, a basically decent man imploding from guilt about his murderous path to 17th-century Tsar. (Ostensibly, the actual Boris was instrumental in murdering the rightful heir to the throne -- a historical assumption historians currently discount.) Pape delivers his second act aria with booming solemnity and surpasses himself, both in singing and acting, in the penultimate death scene.

Gergiev leads the orchestra so that the brooding melodies seem as if they were flowing from his arms. He consistently makes cogent the many folk-oriented chorus chants and, especially, the dramatic themes in the opera's Poland section that Mussorgsky added in 1875 after taking to heart criticism that his initial 1869 version had no significant woman's role.

A certain amount of awed appreciation goes to director Stephen Wadsworth, who shaped this new production in just five weeks (after replacing Peter Stein) while working with what set designer Ferdinand Wogerbauer and costume designer Moidele Bickel had already put in place. Wogerbauer has gone for burnished gold as the basic look, and Bickel hews wisely to traditional period dress with the ladies of the Polish court gorgeously outfitted in matching white gowns and high domed hats.

Special congratulations also go to Wadsworth for his handling of the chorus in the final scene, which looks as if it alone could have taken five weeks to prepare. The choristers are always in top vocal form under Donald Palumbo's guidance, but their acting as a mob aroused to murder (in Mussorgsky's deliberate reference to the 1861 freeing of the serfs) is astonishing in its convincing violence.

The ensemble is also to be praised, notably Aleksandrs Antonenko as the monk Grigory; Ekaterina Semenchuk as conniving Marina; Evgeny Nikitin as Rangoni; and Andrey Popoy has the Holy Fool.

Opera wags have regularly amused themselves by asking, "Is Boris good enough?" This one surely is.