To open its 51st season, Houston Grand Opera has picked a royal winner, Modest Mussorgsky's masterpiece Boris Godunov. Watching Stein Winge's dusted-off, minimalist production, which was last seen here ten years ago, we can luxuriate in the composer's powerfully raw, original 1869 version as superstar bass Samuel Ramey commands the stage. The combo is unbeatable.
The opera is based on Pushkin's unwieldy, 24-scene historical play from 1831. Mussorgsky boiled down Pushkin's behemoth into a taut psychological portrait of this troubled 16th-century czar, infusing the whole with swathes of distinct harmonic color that can only be called "Russian." The score conjures folk songs, liturgical chants, everyday speech and even the great pealing bells of Uspensky Cathedral.
As the story goes, Boris has become czar after having murdered the young rightful heir, Dmitry. Although he attempts to rule wisely, providing work and food for the masses, Boris is blamed by the people for the famine ravaging the country. On a second rebellion-stirring front, the young monk Grigory, suffocating under monastic life, sets himself up as Dmitry come back to life. But it's Boris's inner turmoil -- the guilt that gnaws at him for the murder -- that is his undoing. With each scene he becomes more unhinged, until his mind snaps and he falls down dead.
Ramey is pure magnificence in the role of Boris, which is as significant to his career as it was to that of Theodore Chaliapin. Chaliapin was the great Boris of his generation in Rimsky-Korsakov's 1908 silky, European reworking of Mussorgsky's original, which is more raw, more powerful and today more respected than the newer version. Ramey revels in the part's diversity: It calls for him to be cunning, fatherly, sympathetic, regal, treacherous and mad, all in an evening. He reveals all the beauties in Mussorgsky's score with a freshness, vitality and power that have made him the leading bass of his generation.
It's impossible to fill the rest of the cast with performers of Ramey's legendary quality and star wattage, but bass Raymond Aceto, as the old monk Pimen who unwittingly gives Grigory the idea to overthrow Boris, is next in line for accolades. His smooth, textured, velvet voice and acting chops perfectly capture the wise -- and later wily -- character. And as a collective, HGO's chorus, under Richard Bado, and the orchestra, under maestro Tugan Sokhiev, sing and play Mussorgsky's stirring music with appropriate pomp, reverence and nuance.
Break the Silence
Moira Buffini's prize-winning, deep-dish comedySilenceteeters wildly in tone: rollicking sex farce one minute, serious polemic the next. But while it might not be completely successful as either romp or tract, the play has enough goodies to make it worthwhile. In her clever anachronistic pastiche, which takes place in the fragrant muck of the Dark Ages, Buffini holds a mirror to today's gender politics, social commentary and religious questioning, then casts its reflections back to 1000 AD.
The French princess Ymma, headstrong and haughty, is forced to marry Silence, the boy king of Cumbria, by decree from England's King Ethelred. Ymma is enraged but cannot forestall the inevitable. But in bed, the pair discovers jointly that Silence is a maiden, raised to think she's a man. To keep their kingdom and their heads, they decide that silence is the best policy. With a motley crew (Ymma's maid, a doubting priest, a randy soldier), they escape to the protection of Cumbria. Their journey northward constitutes Act II, where everyone's cloud of silence must be dispersed for each to find happiness and fulfillment.
What stitches this disparate patchwork together are the six characters who are just as much flesh and blood as they are author's mouthpiece. The cast is excellent. Elena Coates makes a delectable fire-breathing princess. When she discovers a kindred spirit in Silence (an ardent, boyish Kelley Stolte), her stony facade transforms into warm curves and languid poses. In his excellent characterization of King Ethelred, Rutherford Cravens goes from petulant buffoon hiding under the bed linens to ruthless savage, the epitome of absolute power corrupting absolutely. David Wald (Roger, the priest) is the cosmic comic foil; he can't quite get a handle on the fact that he's not supposed to have impure thoughts. Josh Morrison (Eadric) is a man's man of a soldier, who, in a New Age sort of way, thinks he's clairvoyant. That he gets everything wrong doesn't faze his macho image. Elizabeth Byrd (Agnes, the maid) puts up with Ymma's harping with Thelma Ritter attitude, which she applies with finesse and crack timing. Under Rob Bundy's smooth direction, you forget the play's faults and enjoy the show.
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