Modest Mussorgsky’s magnificent historical opera, Boris Godunov, currently running at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, opens the Company’s Live in HD 2021-22 season. This production by Stephen Wadsworth, stars German bass René Pape in the title role, David Butt Philip as the pretender Grigory, and Maxim Paster as the powerful boyar Shuisky. German conductor Sebastian Weigle leads the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, and the transmission is hosted by soprano Angel Blue.
Set in Russia between 1598 and 1605, the opera is Mussorgsky’s depiction of the troubled life of the rise and fall of the 16th century Tsar, Boris Godunov. He became Regent after the deaths of Ivan the Terrible and his son Fyodor – at a time when Ivan’s surviving son Dmitry, the Tsarevitch, was still a child. Dmitry, however, died in mysterious circumstances, following which Boris, at the behest of a group of politicians, reluctantly agreed to become Tsar, hoping that no one would discover the secret that troubled him – his role in the assassination of the rightful heir to the throne.
Boris was considered to be a good ruler, until the young monk Grigory, who bore a remarkable resemblance to the deceased Tsarevitch, decided to impersonate Dmitry and seize the throne. With pressure mounting on him from all sides, Boris began to lose his sanity, until ultimately, naming his son Feyodor the heir to his throne, Boris bade a loving farewell to his children and died.
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was not only the composer of Boris Godunov, but he also wrote the libretto which was based on Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin’s play, written in 1825 and published in 1831. Puskhin took his inspiration from the Shakespeare play, Boris Godunov, but he was also heavily influenced by Nikolay Karamzin’s History of the Russian State. The opera was completed in 1869, but it was rejected by the Directorate of the Imperial Theatres in St Petersburg, so in 1872 Mussorgsky revised his opera, and it premiered in 1874 at the Mariinsky Theatre.
Some years later, the Russian pianist and musicologist, Pavel Lamm, who was director of the State Music Publication Department in Moscow between 1918 and 1923, established a storehouse for scores which had been confiscated from nationalised music publishers in Russia. One of these scores was the original which Mussorgsky had written for Boris Godunov, and which is much closer to Pushkin’s text than the revised one. This 1869 version of Boris Godunov was premiered at the State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet, in what was then Leningrad, on 16th February, 1928, and it’s this one-act version which is staged by the Metropolitan Opera.
René Pape, whose “dark, penetrating voice is ideal for the role” according to the New York Times, has been a member of the Berlin State Opera since 1988, where he has performed most of the great roles of his career. He made his debut with the Met in 1995, since when has appeared in 18 roles and more than 160 performances, including four major debuts – Méphistophélès in Faust, Gurnemanz in Parsifal, Escamillo in Carmen, and the Old Hebrew in Samson et Dalila. Winner of two Grammy Awards, named Musical America’s Vocalist of the Year in 2002, Artist of the Year by the German opera critics in 2006, and winner of an ECHO award in 2009, René Pape is described by Opera News as “an artist who thrills his audiences with charisma, intelligence, and a one-in-a-million voice”.
The role of the Pretender Grigory is taken by British tenor David Butt Philip of whom the Guardian, following an appearance at The Royal Opera House, wrote: “He sings with uncompromising conviction and blazing intensity. He’s a superb actor, too … It’s an exceptional, career-making achievement.”
Making his Met Opera debut is Russian tenor Maxim Paster as Shuisky who brings Boris news of the Pretender to the throne. Mr Paster has recently sung this role at Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bayerische Staatsoper and Opèra national de Paris Bastille, and whom – according to Bachtrack – “….has flair and panache, and fills the scene with his presence both physically and vocally”.
Other members of the cast include Russian baritone Aleksey Bogdanov as the boyar Shchelkalov, who, according to Opera News, has “…a dark, rich baritone with plenty of luster … star quality in every way”. Estonian bass Ain Anger, described by the Guardian as “One of the great Wagner basses of our time”, is the monk Pimen who relates to Grigory the accounts of the death of the Tsarevich Dmitry, and bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green – who has rapidly gained an international reputation as a ‘breakthrough star’ – is the vagrant monk, Varlaam.
Conductor Sebastian Weigle who leads Mussorgsky’s towering masterwork, has appeared on the stages of some of the world’s finest opera houses, including The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Vienna State Opera, Berlin State Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Hamburg State Opera and Zürich Opera, as well as at the Bayreuth Festival. He has held the roles of Principal Conductor for Berlin State Opera, Music Director of the Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, and since 2008 has been General Music Director of Frankfurt Opera.
Stephen Wadsworth is director of the Artist Diploma in Opera Studies program at the Juilliard School, and also head of dramatic studies in the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. As well as at the Met, he has directed operas at La Scala, Milan, The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Vienna State Opera, Netherlands Opera, Edinburgh Festival and at San Francisco Opera, and plays on and off Broadway, and in London’s West End. Among works which he has written is the libretto for Leonard Bernstein’s opera A Quiet Place.
The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Boris Godunov Live in HD (sung in Russian with English titles) will be screened on October 9th in cinemas in the US and in and around the London area in the UK, at 12.55 pm ET. To find your nearest cinema, please follow this link.
Live performances of Boris Godunov at the Met will take place on October 9th at 1.00 pm, October 14th at 7.00 pm, and October 17th at 3.00 pm – all ET. Further details of this production, and others in the Metropolitan 2021-22 season, can be found on the Metropolitan Opera website.