Mussorgsky Unplugged

Broadway shows and movies aren't the only things that are endlessly tinkered with before they're presented to the public in what's supposed to be their final form. Operas, too, undergo revisions, and few have been as frequently revised as Modest Mussorgsky's masterpiece, Boris Godunov.

Mussorgsky himself was involved in some of the reworkings (which were demanded, in part, because his original lacked a female lead). Later, other composers, most notably Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov and Dmitri Shostakovich, fiddled with Mussorgsky's score. Though it was ultimately Rimski-Korsakov's interpretation that became the international favorite, for its new production of Boris Godunov, Houston Grand Opera has re-turned to the original seven-scene work that Mussorgsky composed in 1869. And while this version lacks much of the pomp and pageantry that characterizes Rimski-Korsakov's rendition -- and also lacks a good deal of the sumptuous music found in the later interpretation -- one thing it doesn't lack is power. Mussorgsky's original is more dramatically forceful than the takes on Godunov that followed. With the trappings stripped away, the tortured soul of the troubled czar, Boris Godunov, emerges more clearly.

Basically, this is Boris Godunov unplugged. Despite this, HGO's version still has enough of the rich music normally associated with the opera to win over even the most die-hard Rimski-Korsakov partisans.

Mussorgsky's original version of Boris Godunov, which he based on Alexander Pushkin's play about the czar, is basically a history, unfolding chronologically rather than dramatically. As a result, it demands an accomplished performer in the title role to hold the audience's interest. HGO is fortunate to have such a performer in Vladimir Matorin, the leading bass at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater. At Friday's premiere, Matorin showed not only that he has a superb voice, but that he knows how to act. His sympathetic portrayal of Godunov was both powerful and moving.

HGO has also assembled a fine supporting cast for its production. At the premiere, Konstantin Pluzhnikov was excellent as the traitorous prince Vassily Shuisky, while Maxim Mikhailov was outstanding in the dual role of Varlaam/Schelkalov. Vsevolod Grivnov was also excellent as the False Dimitri, while Jon Kolbet turned in a fine performance as the Simpleton. Also noteworthy were Dimitri Kavrakos as Pimen, Kimberly Jones as Xenia and Susan Shafer as the nurse.

The opera's story centers on Czar Boris Godunov's reign from 1598 to 1605, which forms part of the period known in Russian history as the "time of troubles." Godunov ascends to the throne amid rumors that he had the rightful heir, the Czarevich Dimitri, murdered. The reign that follows isn't much better, being marked by economic hardship and internal strife. (Watching the opera, one can't help but be reminded of the current situation in Russia, also under the rule of a leader named Boris.) In the end, Godunov dies while a pretender who claims, falsely, to be the slain Dimitri plots his own rise to power.

The opera's high points include the dramatic coronation scene near the beginning. Even in this first version of Boris Godunov, the scene is overpowering: Amid the adulation of the masses and the pealing of bells, Godunov crowns himself czar, albeit reluctantly. Matorin is highly effective in conveying Godunov's torment over taking the throne and his concern for the welfare of Russia.

For this scene to be effective, the chorus must be in top form, and at Friday's premiere it was. The chorus sang magnificently in this scene and throughout the entire opera.

Another powerful scene takes place in the czar's apartment in the Kremlin, where Godunov imagines that he sees the slain czarevich. Overcome with guilt and grief, Godunov collapses. Matorin's performance in this scene is truly marvelous.

However, Matorin is probably at his best in the opera's final scene. In the last moments of his life, Godunov bequeaths power to his son and begs God for forgiveness. Matorin's portrayal of the dying Godunov captures the emotion of the situation perfectly.

A scene at a Russian inn provides a bit of comic relief. The pretender known as the False Dimitri, fleeing from authorities in Moscow, has taken refuge at an inn near the Lithuanian border. The half-drunken Varlaam, who's acting as the False Dimitri's guide, bursts into a ditty about the siege of Kazan. Mikhailov offers a delightful and amusing rendition of this song that was thoroughly appreciated by the opening-night audience.

The staging for this particular production is a bit sparse. However, it almost seems appropriate for such a scaled-down version of Boris Godunov, and it doesn't really detract from the audience's enjoyment. Moreover, the costumes are sumptuous, effectively capturing the atmosphere of the Russian court around the beginning of the 17th century.

HGO deserves commendation for staging Boris Godunov in its original form. (And the Houston Symphony, under HGO Music Director Vjekoslav Sutej, deserves commendation for offering a fine interpretation of Mussorgsky's score.) While the Rimski-Korsakov version may be richer musically, the original is more compact and more dramatically powerful. Both versions have merit, and both deserve a place in the repertoire.

Boris Godunov plays through May 4 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue, 227-

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bruce Guynn