Back in the 1970s, the Met presented what it touted as a chamber-opera “Aida.” Thirty-five years later, the company stages what could be called a pocket “Boris Godunov.” To be kind, it is a very minimal production, but even though director Stephen Wadsworth often has little more than a neutral-gray cyclorama and bare stage at his disposal, the singer-actors here — with one major caveat — deliver a compelling performance of the majestic Mussorgsky score. To his credit, conductor Valery Gergiev has lavished the stage with a hand-picked ensemble of superb Eastern European performers.
The exception here, unfortunately, is the one who counts most, the Boris Godunov of the German bass Rene Pape, long a Met favorite. He is certainly the tortured, introspective tsar. But missing is the vocal heft he needs to be the monster czar — the one who has murdered Tsarevich Dimitry, the rightful heir to the throne — and the tyrant whom the chorus condemns in the opera’s final scene, brilliantly staged by Wadsworth. Pape’s Boris is only half a Boris.
Boris, though, is only half the opera. Parallel to his descent is the rise of the pretender to the throne, the monk Grigory, and Aleksandrs Antonenko is every inch that false Dimitry. His vocal outpouring is unstinting and totally assured, as is his regal bearing. In his hands, as the Holy Fool (sung with crazed beauty by Andrey Popov) warns the angry mob that gives the throne to this pretender, Russia is certain to perpetuate its violent past.
In that final scene of mayhem and carnage, as one boyar after another is tortured and murdered, set designer Ferdinand Wogerbauer provides nothing more than that aforementioned bare stage. Wadsworth, however, bends the massive Met chorus to his will to choreography a riveting scene of horrific violence.
He’s equally effective with only two or three actors onstage. With this “Boris,” act three emerges as the evening’s high point, wherein the Jesuit Rangoni (a delightfully evil Evgeny Nikitin) forces the Polish princess Marina (a vocally bottomless Ekaterina Semenchuk) to seduce the false Dimitry. Is there a faster way to convert Russia to Catholicism? There’s plenty of sexual heat between this priest and princess; his red leather gloves are an awfully nice touch. And much to Wadsworth’s credit, it’s not always easy to tell who’s manipulating whom here. These three are a match made in hell.
Legit producers, take note: Wadsworth is ready for his Broadway-debut assignment.