Godunov for You

If opera seems a bit too schmaltzy for you, consider this plot line: Fifteen years after the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the Russian czar Boris Godunov uses treachery and corruption to come to power. Once he's claimed the throne, though, enemies use -- you guessed it -- treachery and corruption to try to overtake him. Death, war, famine -- and not a warbling diva in sight.

Boris Godunov, the first show in Houston Grand Opera's 2005-2006 season (The Marriage of Figaro opens a week later), is pretty dark. "It's very difficult to direct," confesses director Julia Pevzner, "because you have a bunch of men talking about death and politics all the time. There's no love story."

In fact, composer Modest Mussorgsky couldn't get his 1869 opera staged until 1874, after he'd made some scene cuts and created a female lead. The Houston production, however, will stick to his original, intended version. (We don't need no romance in these parts.)

Pevzner says she is "very, very thrilled" to return to Houston, where she's assisted with the direction of two previous productions. She's collaborating for the first time with wunderkind conductor Tugan Sokhiev, 27, who, like Pevzner, hails from St. Petersburg. Add in megastar bass Samuel Ramey as Boris and a cast of 150 (including both adult and children's choruses) and you've got some serious opera.

While the production features elaborate period costumes -- think jewels, fur and all things imperial -- the set is quite abstract and minimalist. "Therefore it really becomes an opera about people," Pevzner explains, "not about scenery."

To her, the power struggle in Boris is more compelling and relevant than any love story. "We want to look at history in order to understand the present. And maybe look into the future," she says. "I think that's what Mussorgsky wanted to do -- to see how people make history."

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Julia Ramey