[Met Performance] CID:186020

Boris Godunov
Metropolitan Opera House, Thu, October 27, 1960

Debut : Anthony Balestrieri, Ron Sequoio

In English

Boris Godunov (153)
Modest Mussorgsky | Modest Mussorgsky
Boris Godunov
George London

Prince Shuisky
Norman Kelley

Giorgio Tozzi

Brian Sullivan

Blanche Thebom

Kim Borg

Ezio Flagello

Paul Franke

Louis Sgarro

Thomas Powell

Thelma Votipka

Calvin Marsh

Martha Lipton

Robert Nagy

Osie Hawkins

Mildred Allen

Margaret Roggero

Mignon Dunn

Anthony Balestrieri [Debut]

John Trehy

Hal Roberts

Boyar in Attendance
Gabor Carelli

Ron Sequoio [Debut]

Erich Leinsdorf

Nathaniel Merrill

Mstislav Dobujinsky

Alexandra Danilova

Translation by John Gutman
The orchestration by Dmitri Shostakovich was performed until 12/16/74.
Boris Godunov received seven performances this season.

Review 1:

Review of Robert Sabin in the December 1960 issue of Musical America

Interest in the season's first "Boris" centered on the Shostakovich orchestration, heard for the first time here. In recent years the Metropolitan had abandoned the Rimsky-Korsakoff version and had used one commissioned from Karol Rathaus which was much more faithful to Mussorgsky's original.

Unfortunately, the Shostakovich version has the virtues of neither. Its cheap, noisy, tasteless, and inappropriate thickenings and alterations only go to show how well Rimsky-Korsakoff fulfilled his task; and it so distorts the musical visage of Mussorgsky that what is noble and moving in the admittedly awkward original becomes grotesque in this Broadway-style popularization. The Coronation Scene sounds like a mixture of cowbells and a traffic-jam; the Polish scene is overladen with syrupy sonorities; and the brass band on stage is just what one might expect in this "super-colossal" version. Frankly, it set my teeth on edge. No one admires the Shostakovich of such works as the First and Fifth Symphonies more than I do, but this manhandling of Mussorgsky does no honor to either composer.

The redeeming feature of this generally loud, but feeble, performance was the magnificent interpretation of the title role by George London, one of the most compelling he has given here. As a boy, I heard Chaliapin in the role, and I have heard some superb Borises since, but I cannot remember having been more deeply moved, even terrified, than I was by his acting and singing on this occasion.

Two members of the cast sang their roles for the first time at the Metropolitan. Norman Kelley has the makings of an admirable Shuiski, for he is an able actor and musical colorist. At this first appearance, he was not sufficiently sinister; the mixture of craven servility and ruthless ambition was not as clearly defined in voice and bearing as it might have been. But the design is right; it simply needs to be more deeply etched. Kim Borg tried to make the wily Jesuit Rangoni properly sinister, also, but his voice was too light for the role, and he did not succeed in dominating the scene as he should have.

Miss Roggero was a charming Fyodor, boyish in bearing but resolved to be valiant. And Miss Allen and Miss Dunn also acted and sang admirably in that domestic scene in Act II that so beautifully reveals the tender side of Boris. That ever-dependable artist Mr. Tozzi brought both dignity and smooth, dark tones to the role of Pimen. And Paul Franke again made the Simpleton a touching and symbolic figure.

Other familiar figures in the cast were Miss Thebom, Miss Lipton, Mr. Sullivan, and Mr. Flagello. Visually, Miss Thebom was a stunning Marina, but vocally she was not in best form and many tones were raspy that one had anticipated as mellow. Nor was Miss Lipton at her best in the haunting folk song of the Innkeeper. Dramatically vigorous, especially in the scene with Pimen, Mr. Sullivan, too, had his vocal problems, especially in matters of tone quality. As the drunken old roustabout Varlaam, Mr. Flagello sang well, but he could bring a bigger line and authority to this brief but extremely picturesque role. The others in the large cast were all on their toes, musically speaking.

Why, then, was this "Boris" feeble and unsatisfying? The principal reason was the chorus-the very soul of the opera and the voice of the Russian people. It did not sing unmusically-quite the opposite-but it lacked the body, the sweep, the bite, the overwhelming humanity of a real Russian chorus. There was something almost Mendelssohnian about its performance. And some of the stage business was silly: women raising imploring arms to the boxes out front when the false Dimitri was approaching from the rear, and officials and boyars running frantically down the ramp and suddenly turning stately when they reached the center of the stage.

Furthermore, John Gutman's English translation is flat and unpoetical. Salient phrases should emerge in beautiful and powerful English. And, while I am in the debit column, Alexandra Danilova's choreography for the Polish scene is too small-scale and unspectacular.

Everybody worked hard, however, and Mr. Leinsdorf and the orchestra did their best for Shostakovich and Mussorgsky. It is only fair to add that many members of the audience did not share my lack of enthusiasm.

Review 2:

Review of Paul Henry Lang in the Herald Tribune

The amiably decorous pagans of Ethiopia, Egypt, or Babylonia, usually hard to distinguish on the operatic stage from the Smith Brothers, gave way last night at the Met to the real barbarians of old Russia, to the real miseries of old Poland, and to a Czar whose insanity is uncomfortably real as it emerges from the music. The language in Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" is new, original and powerful, tinged by that East European quality that strongly suggests neighboring Asia.

Everything is invention here, the visions of genius, some tender, some overwhelming, but the visions are often disconnected, not only because Mussorgsky did not possess a command of the opera composer's craft, but because he could not - and probably did not want to - shape an organic dramatic structure. What he created is magnificent and somewhat chaotic, as was his own much tried Russian soul, rent by pity, childlike wonderment, and unspeakable agony.

This fascinating music drama is so full of crudities that professional assistance must be given the score before it can be mounted. This assistance Rimsky-Korsakov was the first to render. While successful and very competent, Rimsky's arrangement of "Boris" is at times a little too elegant and smooth; the brutal vigor of the score was dulled. Karol Rathaus' version, heard previously here, consisted of spot removing without materially interfering with the original, and was a half-measure. Last night the Met presented a new arrangement by Dimitri Shostakovich in which the opera is reworked from stem to stern. This is what I must report on.

I really do not quite know how to regard it. Mr. Shostakovich did not just re-orchestrate "Boris Godunov;" like Rimsky, he reached into the innards of the score, often changing even the crucial and very personal element of part writing.

For the first time "Boris" was reworked by a musician of strong personality whose impact upon the original was inevitable. The result is a well-sounding and very impressive work, something like Mozart's version of Handel's "Messiah." But Mozart's "Messiah" is altogether different from Handel's; a southern, Catholic, Latinized German's concept of a northern, Anglicized, German Protestant masterpiece. In the case of "Boris" both composers were Muscovites, and while Shostakovich's "Boris" is a different work, one does not feel that injustice was done to the original composer, as is undoubtedly true of Mozart's "Messiah."

Frankly, I think that Shostakovich made Mussorgsky more viable, and perhaps even more powerful. This is not a case for purists because there is no way out. Let us just enjoy what we are given, and the Met's presentation is a truly magnificent affair both visually and musically.

George London in the title role can be framed and placed in a special room in the operatic gallery. He lives the role, sings it with conviction, and all the wild passion that Mussorgsky poured in the insane king is conveyed with exemplary enunciation and beautifully phrased musical sentences, But all the singing was grand, Giorgio Tozzi (Pimen) sounded like a noble organ stop, while Ezio Flagello (Varlaam), a fine character actor, kept on singing faultlessly while doing his elaborate acting.

The cast is so large in this work that it is impossible to describe everyone's contribution, and while all the ladies were excellent, their role is an accessory to the drama. But I must single out the chorus; ever present in this work, and virtually the chief protagonist next to Boris. They not only sang well, but acted well, Nathaniel Merrill, the stage director, kept them moving in a convincingly natural way.

The sets and costumes are gorgeous, and John Gutman's English translation made "Boris" into a real music drama not just a collection of red seal records.

Erich Leinsdorf conducted with vigor and with a full realization of the elemental power bursting forth from this score. But at times the orchestra was a little loud, notably the brass band on the stage was somewhat shrill. It is hard to tell whether it was Shostakovich's fault or the conductor's that occasionally the singers - and even the chorus - were a little overwhelmed. I suspect though, that by taming the orchestra, oh, let's say, about fifteen per cent across the board, this slight blemish can be eliminated.

This production is highly recommended; it is good theater, sumptuously presented, and even the most case-hardened early decamper will be compelled to stay to the very end.

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