Innsbruck Early Music Festival 2021 Review: Boris Goudenow

Jean Renshaw’s Heavy Direction Distracts From the Music

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Birgit Gufler)

In 1874 Mussorgsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’ received its premiere at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. Yet, he was not the first to write an opera of that name, 164 years earlier in 1710 Johann Mattheson completed his version of “Boris Goudenow,” but for reasons which are now unclear it was not performed during the composer’s lifetime, and ended up being stored in Hamburg’s Municipal Library. Unfortunately, during the Second World War the building was destroyed, and along with it the score of Mattheson’s opera, which at the time still had never been performed. At least that was the commonly held belief. However, in 1998, the score resurfaced in Armenia. It had, in fact, been removed to a castle for safety, from where the Soviet army had taken it, during the occupation. After its subsequent return to Germany, Mattheson’s opera finally received its world premiere at Hamburg’s Bucerius Kunst Forum in a concert performance in 2005, and then its first staged performance at the Boston Early Music Festival in the same year.

The plot has little in common with Mussorgsky’s version, focusing instead on Boris’ political intriguing to become Tsar, and a complex web of love interests from which he remains aloof. There are also moments of comedy, particularly surrounding the character of Bogda, who is more interested in having an undisturbed sleep than high politics. The opera ends in typical baroque fashion with Boris pardoning his rival for the throne and reconciling the lovers.

Renshaw’s Heavy-Handed Direction

The direction for this production by the Innsbruck Festwochen der Alten Musik was encharged to Jean Renshaw, whose reading was dark, vicious, and bleak in the extreme, and in which her attempts to inject comedy did nothing to lighten the impact, but rather added to its heaviness. In her program notes Renshaw stated “I did not want to damage this work with unnecessary changes,” and then proceeded to make a number of unnecessary changes, such as having Tsar Theodorus Iwanowitz murdered twice, instead of dying from natural causes. On the first occasion, the Tsar is put onto an operating table and then four of the protagonists, dressed as surgeons, butchered him with an array of implements, which was partially played for laughs. It did not work! However, that was not the end of Theodorus. He returns in the second part of the opera dressed as a skeleton. If you think he was meant to be a ghost or otherworldly incarnation, then think again. He was grabbed and executed, shot through the head at close range.

Nor were the entangled love interests used to provide a sentimentalized gloss or to inject a lighter frivolous side to the drama. Far from it, rather they were used to heap on further layers of emotional pain so that at one stage Irina takes to the bottle, downing bottle after bottle of vodka to dull her senses.

Obviously, the temptation to make references to current events was too strong for Renshaw to ignore, so that the ex-Tsar Theodorus, as a skeleton, marches around the stage holding up a placard reading “Stop The Steal.”

Clearly, Renshaw was out to make a point about the nature of power, and the effects it has on those who are desperate to attain it, and on those who come into their orbit, and to be fair the opera would certainly lend itself to such an interpretation. However, Renshaw’s direction was not sharp enough, there was too much confusion, too many ideas jumbled together, too much to irritate. In particular, she appeared not to trust the music, so that all the musical interludes had to be filled with extraneous movement, which added nothing but certainly detracted from the enjoyment. Even fairly quiet scenes had to be powered up in some way, the most offensive example being the final scene in which Bogda, dressed in a tutu danced and cavorted behind the singers who sat singing a beautiful ensemble piece. It was ugly, brutal and again distracted from the music, and for what purpose?

The costumes designed by Anna Ignatieva, were a random collection, although having a definite Russian theme. Boris and Fedro, for example, were dressed in Soviet military uniforms, but why was a bare-chested Gavust dressed in a fur hat, lederhosen, and wearing gold-colored training shoes? Maybe it was a reference to him being a foreign prince, but surely there are better ways of portraying the fact. The overall effect was to add to the general confusion.

When a director wants to create a bleak, depressing atmosphere it can almost be guaranteed that the scenographer will immediately reach for the color black and other dark shades, and indeed Lisa Moro did not disappoint. Everything apart from the occasional costume was dark and dismal and magnified by Leo Göbi’s lighting. However, where Moro was successful and did display imagination was in her ability to create a set that functioned simply and effectively. Most of the action is centered on a long table which was easily transformed into what was ever necessary, including a raised area on which to seat the Tsar.

Overall, however, this production failed not because it was aesthetically ugly and monotonously dismal, nor because it detracted from Mattheson’s music, but because it failed to present a reading which was clearly understandable and engaging. No doubt every directorial conceit could be explained, but this is not a well-known work and few people will have sufficient time, energy, or knowledge of the work to decipher all of Renshaw’s meanings.

Matteson’s Score Does Not Escape The Changes

The structure of the score is of standard baroque form, with recitatives alternating with musical numbers. However, Mattheson’s treatment of the aria is more flexible than was common, mixing da capo, strophic, and through-composed forms. He also made extensive use of ensemble pieces, which gave the drama a greater degree of flexibility. Also in line with the custom of German opera of the early 18th century, recitatives were in German and many of the arias were in Italian.

However, Renshaw still felt the need to make “necessary changes” to improve the drama, stating in her program notes “We deleted… …recitatives, and arias were pushed back and forth.” More egregious, however, was the decision to turn the role of Boris’ servant Bogda from singing to a spoken part, and then providing him with additional dialogue.

A Young Cast With Interesting Performances

“Boris Goudenow” was the Opera Jung presentation at this year’s festival, in which selected past contestants in the festival’s Cesti Competition are invited back for a staged performance of a chosen opera. The cast was, therefore, young with relatively limited experience. One of the advantages of such a project is the degree to which the singers engage with their roles and the enthusiasm they bring to the stage. Moreover, there are always many interesting voices on display, and rarely does one find quality lacking. This year’s cast was no exception, although for the first 20 minutes there were some nervy performances, which did not fully iron themselves out until the second part of the production.

The standout performance came from mezzo-soprano Alice Lackner in the role of Olga, a princess in love with Josennah. Initially, she appears as an unsympathetic and uncaring nurse to the Tsar, pushing him around in his wheelchair, but is transformed into a conspirator in Josennah’s bid for the throne. She possesses an attractive, colorful, and agile voice which she used with intelligence to craft nicely wrought embellishments. Her aria “Alma mia! Non è possibile” in particular caught the attention with the beauty and brightness of her upper register and subtle phrasing, as she gave voice to her despair and longing for love.

Olivier Gourdy has a well-centered bass, with an appealing timbre and exhibited the necessary gravity in the role of Boris. He produced a well-defined portrait of the want-to-be Tsar, in which his carefree approach convincingly hid his intentions, as he manipulated the situation to his advantage. His recitatives were clearly and expressively delivered, and arias displayed an engaging quality. His final aria “Mi prepara il Ciel contento” in which he reflects on his triumph was excellent and showed off his impressive phrasing to good effect.

Sreten Manojlovic played the role of Fedro, Boris’ ally, who is in love with his sister Irina. He also has a bass voice, but one which contrasted nicely with Gourdy’s. Manojlovic’s voice is lighter with a freer, more lyrical quality. When the two basses interacted it produced an interesting and appealing combination. His overall performance was solid in what was not the most exciting of roles.

The fairly demanding role of Irina was played by soprano Flore van Meerssche. She produced a fine performance, successfully capturing the conflicted feelings of her character, in which the homogeneity of her voice with its beautiful upper register and agility impressed. In the second part, she is required to act out an extended scene in which she becomes increasingly drunk. Using the flexibility of the voice to embroider the vocal line with convincing emphases and an affecting coloratura she produced a very realistic portrait of someone falling into a drunken stupor, turning it into one of the more memorable and successful scenes of the evening.

Soprano Julie Goussot was cast as Boris’ daughter Axinia. She produced a mixed performance, but one which displayed potential, especially in her ability to bring depth and expressive intensity to the part. Such was her determination, however, that she occasionally pushed herself too far, took too many risks so that the voice was not always under full control and could sound strained in the upper register, although her coloratura was beautifully rendered. Also, her recitatives were intelligently crafted.

Joan Folqué produced a lively performance as Gavust, although his golden-colored trainers did him no favors at all! He has a strong stage personality, and alone amongst the cast, was able to inject a little lightness into drama. His singing is equally open and expansive. He has a pleasing warm tenor, with a colorful palate, and impressively expressed himself with ease.

Bass Yevhen Rakhmanin was essentially cast twice: once as the aging Tsar Theodorus and then as his skeleton. He produced a versatile performance, transforming himself seamlessly from the old, infirm Tsar to the lively animated skeleton. His voice displayed depth and strength, which he used effectively to characterize the invalid Theodorus.

Tenor Eric Price as Boris’ rival to the throne Josennah did not impose himself on the role sufficiently to convince. His singing was reasonable and the voice had a pleasing timbre, but there was a lack of any meaningful characterization in his presentation, and so recitatives and arias tended to be a little labored.

Sebastian Songin as Bogda was asked to paint himself in various guises, ranging from executioner to ballet dancer. He did an excellent job, although the director’s ideas about the role were not always clear.

The musical director Andrea Marchiol produced a rhythmically tight performance from the Concerto Theresia. The ensemble, consisting of 18 players, produced a dry, thin sound which was not attractive although, Marchiol was very successful in maintaining a pleasing balance between the stage and the pit.

It was a frustrating performance in many respects, not least owing to the effort needed to follow Renshaw’s staging. Moreover, the consistent gloom which infected the production meant that the lighter aspects, such as the love interest, and Boris’ magnanimity in the final scene were basically glossed over, to the extent that the production became a lop-sided reading focused solely on the misery surrounding power. On the other hand, the musical side of the production had much to delight, even though it was overwhelmed by the omnipresent darkness of the set. There were a number of very interesting arias, and the ensemble pieces were beautifully written and performed, none more so than in the final scene, in which the voices of the seven soloists intertwined delightfully in duets, trios, and as a chorus.

It was a production which did enough to whet the appetite, and one would certainly welcome the opportunity to see the opera again, although hopefully, with a different staging, more closely in accord with Mattheson’s original conception, free from “necessary changes.”


ReviewsStage Reviews