You may have heard about the widely publicized landmark with which the Metropolitan Opera opened its season on Monday: Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” its first work by a Black composer. Flying under the radar is the less momentous but still significant milestone that followed on Tuesday, when the company finally performed the original 1869 version of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.”
Opera is littered with competing editions and unclear authorial intentions. Does the Giulietta act go before or after the Antonia act in “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”? Do you sing Verdi’s masterpiece in Italian as “Don Carlo,” or — as the Met will do for the first time in its history late this winter — in the original French, as “Don Carlos”?
But probably no major work is as vexed as “Boris Godunov.” Mussorgsky had never written an opera when he created this often brusque, raw, darkly sober, oddly spare score about a troubled czar and his troubled country. We’re not entirely sure why it was rejected by the imperial theater directorate, but the main reason may have been a banal one: The piece lacked a major female character.
So Mussorgsky gamely (perhaps even happily) revised, adding material — including Marina, a leading lady of sorts — and taking chunks out; a version of that version premiered in 1874. Then, after Mussorgsky’s death, his friend Rimsky-Korsakov took it upon himself to reorchestrate, rejigger and sometimes recompose the work to make it more colorful and less idiosyncratic. This seems scandalous to us, but without Rimsky “Boris” would never have entered the international repertory early in the 20th century.
Over the past 50 years or so, as part of a general vogue for presenting art as its creators envisioned, Rimsky’s glittering interventions fell from grace in favor of Mussorgsky’s starker orchestrations. But his revised, post-1869 version has remained the norm. Or, more precisely, an amalgam: The available options have served as a kind of grab bag, with scenes and passages kept or left out at will, and ordered in various sequences. (That all this is possible speaks to how strange and episodic the work is, as well as to how compelling it remains in almost any form.)
It was therefore not unusual that, when the Met’s current production premiered in 2010, it could contain, among other choices, both the act set in Poland (from Mussorgsky’s revised version) and the scene at the Cathedral of St. Basil, which had been cut after 1869. This was a sprawling, two-intermission affair of almost four and a half hours.
The 1869 version, still a rarity, runs about half that, in a single act of seven scenes presented at the Met without intermission. (The edition being performed is by Michael Rot.) This is by no means an abbreviated “Boris.” But conducted with cool, efficient clarity and seriousness by Sebastian Weigle, it is certainly a lithe evening, a sour shot of a demanding, easily manipulated populace and the leader that the crowd alternately acclaims and reviles: the title character, privately tormented by guilt at having come to power by murdering the 8-year-old heir to the throne.
Lithe, too, is the Met’s nearly set-less staging, which the director, Stephen Wadsworth, took on at the last minute back in 2010 and which works well in this version, allowing for fluid scene changes and reflecting the austerity of Mussorgsky’s original vision. His orchestra acts not as a Wagner-style character in its own right, nor as an melodic interlocutor. (There aren’t many melodies.) Instead, it serves as a propelling undercurrent and atmosphere for exposed vocal lines tailored to the rhythms of Russian speech — anticipating Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,” which borrows audibly from “Boris,” and Janacek. Adroitly handled, the technique allows the opera to be talky while flowing ever forward.
And this was a cast of sonorous, articulate singing talkers, led by the production’s star from 2010, the bass René Pape, his voice as burnished and secure as ever as Boris. If Pape’s tonal pleasures have often seemed to come at the expense of vivid characterizations — as in his beautiful, bland Gurnemanz in Wagner’s “Parsifal” — he fits the restraint of this conductor, chorus and production.
This staging is the occasion for several accomplished Met debuts: the bass Ain Anger, commanding as the monk Pimen, who predicts Boris’s downfall; the tenor David Butt Philip, bright yet brooding as Grigory, who proclaims himself Dmitry, the believed-to-have-been-killed rightful heir to the throne; the baritone Aleksey Bogdanov, firm and forthright as the nobleman Shchelkalov; and the tenor Maxim Paster, bronze-toned and cynical as Prince Shuisky.
The bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, the best singer in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” has equally rich, unforced power here as the drunken monk Varlaam. The mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn, as a piquant inn hostess, and the tenor Miles Mykkanen, as the plangent Holy Fool who haunts Boris, are both excellent.
Should we prefer the 1869 original? I actually find the revised version’s ending — the angry mob, bent on revolution, is yet again flipped into cowed fervor, this time by the false Dmitry — to be more effective and haunting than the curtain falling on Boris’s death, particularly in Pape’s all too mellow performance here. But I don’t miss the Polish act, which has always seemed a bit out of place in its deployment of operatic conventions. And the work’s general pessimism seems better suited to its original terseness than to more epic scale.
My answer — today, at least — is yes.
Through Oct. 17 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org.