The last time New Yorkers had a chance to see Boris Godunov was five years ago when the Met staged Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 operatic version. In that well-known opera, the title character of Boris (a real historical figure: brother-in-law to the Tsar Fyodor, who succeeded him as ruler of Russia in 1598) is the central role—with an assist from the chorus, who stand in for the Russian people.
In that 2004 Met production, the venerable bass-baritone James Morris played Boris in a commanding performance. When the Tsar died at the end of the opera, Morris tumbled down the steps from the throne in a thrilling coup de theatre.
This summer, Declan Donnellan, the English director (and co-artistic director of the troupe Cheek By Jowl, which often visits BAM) brings the non-operatic version of Boris Godunov (much less performed outside of Russia) to the Park Avenue Armory. The production, from the Chekhov International Theatre Festival in Moscow, is part of the 2009 Lincoln Center Festival.
In this staging there are no dramatic falls or wild flourishes of stagecraft—nor is Boris the central role. At the Armory (where it runs through Sunday) Alexander Pushkin’s 1825 play is updated to today’s Russia. No explicit mention is made to the transition of power between Vladimir Putin and his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev (a transition as crafty and stage-managed as that of Boris’ takeover) but the Boyars all wear natty European suits and the Russian soldiers sport uniforms with the current Russian flag. The design scheme might be called “karaoke chic,” as the traverse stage is entirely black with only a few lights, candles and the occasional TV to supply techno music and military progress.
If Mussorgsky’s opera puts the spotlight on Boris and the Russian people, Pushkin’s play (and Donnellan’s staging) focuses on Dmitry—a young monk with moxie who claims he is the long-lost son of the previous Czar. There’s no chorus in the play, but the director’s use of the audience on either side of the stage makes it clear that we are the stand-ins for the malleable Russian masses.
It’s a shrewd decision in a production full of invention. The show opens with Orthodox monks in full regalia to evoke a period mood—but as is often the case in this staging, the past becomes present. We see the monks interacting with the boyars in modern dress. The visual point is made: even as Russian has entered the fast-lane of the 21st century there are still things about the old country that remain much the same as in the 17th century.
The actors all speak in Russian, which only adds to the immersion in the Moscow milieu; luckily, Donnellan (who like this critic) doesn’t speak Russian, knows how to stage the action in a way that makes the English-language super-titles often unnecessary. Not entirely, but watching Alexander Feklistov smoke a cigarette, breathing in the fumes as if they alone fuel his reign, says as much about Boris’ insecure grip on power as Pushkin’s monologues.
The central scene of this production is given not to the title character, but rather, Dmitry, when he reveals his secret to his would-be bride. The raw, personal emotion exuded by both the sentimental Dmitry (well played by Evgeny Mironov) and Irina Grineva’s intense, calculating Marina—a woman disgusted at her lover’s low class but still desperate to be Tsarina—dwarfs all of the political maneuvering in the play. This scene plays out over a fountain (suggested by a small pool that appears center stage) and the dynamic between the two schemers possesses more tension, reversals and compromise than a U.S./Soviet Summit Meeting. The program states that Donnellan’s next staging will be Shakespeare’s Scottish Play—he’ll have a hard time finding a better Lady Macbeth than Ms. Grineva.
Like Macbeth, Pushkin’s 185-year old play is one in which the characters act quickly without thought and then wrestle with the consequences later. Despite Macbeth’s bloodshed, order is restored when Malcolm takes the throne at the end of that classic work; in Boris the play ends without a sense of closure. 400 years after the real Boris’ death, and almost 200 years after Pushkin wrote Boris Godunov (never to see it performed due to censorship) Donnellan’s production artfully suggests that Russia continues to wait for a Malcolm figure to restore order at the Kremlin.
Photo: (top to bottom) Evgeny Mironov and Irina Grineve. Photo credit: Vladimir Vyatkin.