Friday 6 October 2023

Boris Godunov, Hamburg State Opera, 4 October 2023

Images: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
Boris Godunov (Alexander Tsymbalyuk)

Boris Godunov – Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Andrey Schchelkalov – Alexey Bogdanchikov
Nikitch (Police Officer) – Hubert Kowalczyk
Mityukha – Julian Arsenault
Prince Vasily Ivanovich Shuisky – Matthias Klink
Pimen – Vitalij Kowaljow
Grigory Otrepiev – Dovlet Nurgeldiyev
Hostess of the Inn – Marta Swiderska
Varlaam – Ryan Speedo Green
Missail – Jürgen Sacher
Xenia – Olivia Boen
Xenia’s Nurse – Renate Spingler
Fyodor – Kady Evanyshyn
Boyar – Mateusz Lugowski
Holy Fool – Florian Panzieri

Frank Castorf (director)
Wolfgang Gruber (assistant director)
Aleksandar Denić (set designs)
Adriana Braga Peretzki (costumes)
Rainer Casper (lighting)
Andreas Deinert, Severin Renke (video, live camera)
Maryvonne Riedelsheimer (live editing)
Patric Seibert (dramaturgy)
Children’s and Youth Choir of the Hamburg State Opera (director: Luiz de Goday)
Chorus of the Hamburg State Opera (director: Eberhard Friedrich)
Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra
Kent Nagano (conductor)

It is, of course, the opera for our time; arguably, it is for many other times too. Boris Godunov, in whatever incarnation – a more complex question than it is even for a Bruckner symphony – has nonetheless come under attack from some frankly bizarre nationalists who consider it should not currently be performed. The Polish National Opera’s Waldemar Piotr Dąbrowski announced cancellation of a Warsaw staging with a string of non sequiturs he could not possibly have believed. Ukrainian protestors mobbed La Scala to demand cancellation there. The country’s Minister of Culture went further and, incredibly, demanded other countries boycott all Russian culture. What on earth do they think happens in the opera? Boris’s reign is hardly characterised by its success; whatever this opera is concerned with, it is certainly not a ‘how to’ guide. It is rather like those strange people who think Hitler might have been politically inspired by the Ring. We can be fairly certain he noticed what happened to Wotan, Siegfried, and any other hero. And if we are to take the claims made for Russian culture seriously, surely we should seek to understand it, as of course we should Polish, Ukrainian, and any other culture: all part of our world.

Frank Castorf’s new production for the Hamburg State Opera is arguably not so new. It was due to open in September 2020, but was thwarted by coronavirus. Three years later, it has its chance in a very changed Europe. (You will struggle to go far in Germany without seeing a Ukrainian flag.) Layers of resonance, like those in the work, make it more rather than less relevant, and show those who would cancel or ban artworks for the fools, as well as the knaves, that they are. All societies write and rewrite their history. All respond to myth as well as to evidence, to the present as well as to the past. This is what we see here, in a Russian Empire whose costumes (brilliantly designed by Adriana Braga Peretzki) may be of the twentieth century, but also look back all the way to the Time of Troubles and beyond, boyars from before Peter the Great had their beards shorn. (Is that not, after all, what Stalin did with his ‘Great Patriotic War’?) These pasts are, in many ways, now, whether in Pimen’s chronicle or the electronically changing and updating battle maps of Boris’s imperial quarters, whose billiard games afford little relaxation, yet provide plentiful metaphors for surrounding machinations.

The writing and the dramatising are the thing. Many of us have probably fallen into the trap of taking Pimen’s witness for the truth. He seems so plausible. Perhaps Grigory/Dmitri did too; that is left rather more to our imagination. And does not the tragedy make more sense if Boris was guilty? (Yet if he was, why not, as dramaturge Patric Seibert points out in an excellent programme essay, give the people what they want? Confess and crush his enemy, who is nowhere near victory, in any case?) Perhaps it would, if this were a ‘classical’ anything, yet the rough edges of Boris, its very problematical qualities, are itself the grit of its drama and, perhaps, of its truth. In this, the 1868-9 version (speaking of ‘original’ or otherwise only muddies the water further), we see and hear, to quote Richard Taruskin in typically trenchant yet not unpersuasive form: ‘a set of scenes very roughly hewn from Pushkin’s unwieldy block of poetic marble, selected according to diverse and unrelated criteria. … Far from showing how carefully Mussorgsky structured his dramatic conception, the first Boris boldly displays a quintessentially realist disdain for a well-made play.’ 

‘No Polish scene?’ I hear you lament. Well, yes or no. For Castorf, permitted a degree of leeway here in the opera house to draw on his theatrical practice of introduction of other texts, fills in some of the gaps on film between scenes. Avaricious, cynical, lustful, and a great deal more: it is difficult to imagine the Grigory and Marina we see there as offering much of a solution for the ever-suffering Russian people, whose manipulation by church and nobility is clearly signalled. So too is that of Poland and the Roman Catholic Church more generally, as we see in the presence, also on film, of John Paul II and dispersal of propaganda leaflets headed by iconic – for once, surely, the term holds – emblems of ‘Solidarność’. More traditional icons are to be seen amongst flags and other emblems too: here is nothing if not a contested sphere.

This is less a revisionist (or, if you prefer, historically informed) portrayal of Boris and his rule than one which, in Shakespearean style, declines to judge and leaves that to us, should we wish. We may, of course, learn more by similarly declining: a controversial message,’ if message it be, right now. We certainly learn more by being afforded the privilege. As the action progresses, framed by yet another superlative revolving set of contrasts and connections from Castorf’s longstanding collaborator Aleksandar Denić, we head towards more than one tragic denouement. There is that of Boris, and what we might read into him as representing: perhaps a more ideal form of Soviet rule? His concern for the people seems genuine enough and he feeds them: a point made clearly here. One thing, moreover, that differentiates Boris from today’s politicians – those in power, anyway – is, as Seibert notes, his a conscience. His personal tragedy, and that, it seems here, of Russia too, is that that conscience proves his undoing; it kills him. A Gorbachev, perhaps? For there is the greater political tragedy too. What comes of nefarious external interference, aided and abetted by the Shuiskys (and Romanovs) within?

Fool (Florian Panzieri)

Boris dead, the set revolves once more for Fyodor to see what the future holds: the swift substitution for socialist realism of Coca-Cola, in the form of a huge, again ‘iconic’ bottle centre stage, with a straw whose colours are that of Yeltsin’s (and Putin’s) Russia. ‘Flow, flow, bitter tears,’ as the Fool would have sung again in a different version; the words nonetheless ring in our ears and the curtain falls. What we have seen, whether on stage, on live video close-up, or on film, and what we have still not seen, that variety of sources notwithstanding, may have helped us make up our own minds. What does Pimen do when he retreats inside? Who is exploiting whom at the Polish court? To what extent, if you will forgive the school examination format, is Boris the victim of psychological manipulation? Or we may emerge all the more confused at the complications of art and reality. There are far worse lessons than that.

Kent Nagano’s conducting of the Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra intrigued me too. On the one hand, some of it sounded what I am tempted to call unidiomatic, though I should not exaggerate: closer to Tchaikovsky (though hardly Rimsky) than to Mussorgsky. Yet if we draw those lessons from the production, what of the musical performance? Should we not beware the idea that there is a correct or true path? If we cannot settle on a text for the work ‘itself’, should we not open that out in other ways? Nowadays, we pride ourselves on appreciating the radicalism of ‘pure’ Mussorgsky, even to the extent of preferring (to my mind, somewhat dubiously) the version heard here. What have we lost in the meantime? And can we seriously maintain that those before did not know what they were doing? For Nagano certainly knew where the music was going and, so it seemed, where it had more broadly come from. It was a reading that complemented and even complicated what we saw in stage, even if sometimes I longed for a little more starkness and bite.


Fyodor (Kady Evanyshyn)

In the title role, Alexander Tsymbalyuk offered a similarly thoughtful and complex portrayal: sympathetic yet never banally so. We might trust his witness no more than that of anyone else, but we could certainly trust the alchemy between music, words, and gesture. Matthias Klink’s wheedling Shuisky and Dovlet Nurgeldiyev’s sweet-toned faux-innocence as Grigory made their points in similarly thoughtful ways. Shuisky’s first-hand ‘happening’ to see Boris’s breakdown offered a duly chilling moment. Marta Swiderska presided in colourful, characterful fashion over a raucous hostelry close to the Lithuanian border, Ryan Speedo Green’s Varlaam a properly larger-than-life patron. Vitalij Kowaljow’s Pimen seemed very much the holy man we were given to believe, yet far from ruled out more sinister possibilities. All contributed to the greater whole, as of course did the chorus, whose disappointments, privations, and other sufferings were all too real. Not that they were not in some sense responsible too. Expertly trained by Eberhard Friedrich, with them we knew where we were—or rather, we thought we did.