The Column Online


by Modest Mussorgsky

The Dallas Opera

Conductor: Graeme Jenkins
Original Production: Andrei Tarkovsky
Stage Director: Stephen Lawless
Production Designer: Nicolas Dvigubsky
Lighting Designer: Robert Bryan
Lighting Recreated by: Michael McNamara
Choreographer: Nicola Bowie
Wig & Make-up Design: David Zimmerman
Chorus Master: Alexander Rom
Children's Chorus Master: Melinda Cotten
Assistant Director: Matthew Ferraro
Production Stage Manager: Bethany Ann Wright


Nikitich: Mark McCrory
Mityushka: Stefan Sxkafarowsky
Schelkalov: Andrei Spekhov
Prince Shuisky: David Cangelosi
Boris Godunov: Mikhail Kazakov
Primen: Vitally Efanov
Grigory: Evgeny Akimov
The Hostess of the Inn: Meredith Arwady
Missail: Steven Haal
Varlaam: Mikhail Koleishvili
Xenia: Oxana Shilova
Fyodor: Rebecca Jo Loeb
Their Nurse: Susan Nicely
Rangoni: Sergei Leiferkus
A Simpleton: Keith Jameson
Boyar-in-Attendance: Aaron Blake

Reviewed Performance: 4/3/2011

Reviewed by Mark-Brian Sonna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

SPECTACULARY BORING. Egad! There is nothing better than Opera done right. But when it's done wrong it can be arduous. The Dallas Opera is known for doing such spectacularly good work, so it's a very big disappointment to see Boris Godunov misfire on such a grand scale.

The problem this production has is that they are trying to capture lightning in a bottle.

This production is, in essence, a replica of London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden production done back in 1983. The film director Andrei Tarkovsky mounted that production with Stephen Lawless serving as his assistant. Tarkovsky passed away in 1986 and Lawless now is in charge with replicating that original.

The set is spectacular, the costumes are spectacular, the voices are all very good, the music is magnificent, and the story is great. So what went wrong? Just about everything.

In the process of recreating the original it seems that everyone forgot the "why" behind the Opera. Never have I spent 3 ? hours watching well over 100 people (yes the cast is that large) go through the motions without any motivation. There seems to be no purpose to any of the action. No purpose to why the characters say or do what they do. Some stunning visuals are created with the use of that many bodies, but most of the time there is no reason given or implied behind the staging. The entire production works better as a concert versus a staged opera.

The opera opens with much promise. The initial scene with the throngs of crowds on the humongous set is thrilling. The music is loud and booming to such an extreme that the building literally shakes. At the conclusion you could hear from the audience multiple "Wows." Boris Godunov has just been crowned Tsar and we are primed for a great evening of Opera.

That is where the intrigue is supposed to kick in. There is none. Yes, there is a plot regarding Boris' being the rightful heir to the crown. There is another subplot regarding Grigori trying to usurp Boris' rule. The machinations kick in as well as the deceptions. Or at least that's what the program and the supertitles tell us. But very few of the characters act out their roles. They just stand and sing at us. I might as well just listen to a cast recording. I never get a sense that Boris loves his son, or if he even cares to be the Tsar or not. Mikhail Kazakov has a lovely and booming bass voice and sings every note perfectly, but shows no emotion till the end moments before his death. By that point I don't care if he lives or dies.

When Gregory pretends to be Dimitri in order to displace Boris, I don't care. Is he a good guy? Is he evil? What motivates him to create such deception? It never is communicated by Yevgeny Akimov. His tenor voice is gorgeous, but that's about it. Not once, by his actions, do I understand why he doe such a thing. Again, the libretto and the supertitles inform me, but nothing in his portrayal illuminates his motivations.

The only characters that seem to display any sort of motivation are Mezzo Soprano Elena Bocharova as Marina, Sergei Leiferkus as the malevolent priest Rangoni, Mikhail Kolelishvili as Varlaam, the wine imbibing priest, and Meredith Arwady as The Hostess of the Inn. These four give various levels of depth to their characters, and display in their performance nuances that inform me not only who they are but why they are doing what they are doing. There is conflict in those scenes, which in turn grab our attention.

But even in those scenes there are some moments I found myself wondering: what are they doing? In the process of recreating the original staging, director Lawless seems to forget to clue the singers as to why they are crossing the stage. Of the four, Elena Bocharova as Marina, the power hungry temptress, makes her blocking seem natural. I know exactly why she sits down when she does, or turns her face away when dealing with Rangoni. Her intentions are clearly stated both vocally and physically. There is subtext to her performance. If only she had been in the entire opera!

I had not read the program notes till after the opera. The use of an enormous map of Russia finally makes sense. This map measures about 20 yards in length by 5 yards wide. It is gigantic. It gets kicked and stepped on by Boris and prince Shuisky.

The program states . . . "as an image of two political rivals fighting over territory, it is very potent (and ironically amusing)." If they would do that, it would be a brilliant staging, but the way it plays, it looks like the map has not been laid properly on stage and they are trying to straighten it out. Nothing in their gestures clues me in that it is a metaphor.

This opera is divided into 4 acts, plus a prologue and an epilogue. The way it is presented, there is one intermission. Each one of the acts is so divergent from the next that it makes no sense to only put one break in performance. I know most modern audiences will not care for 3 intermissions, even if they are shortened to 10 minutes apiece. But this opera begs for at least two. One should come after the Prologue and Scene 1, the second after Act 2 and 3. Why?

Because it will take us several minutes to figure out where we are at the beginning of each act since the set remains the same and only some props and furniture are brought out to delineate the new location. An intermission will clean the slate for the audience and then we are prepared to accept the scene as being in a new place.

I do think Graeme Jenkins is a brilliant conductor. So it pains me to ding him in this review.

Mussorgsky's music is truly symphonic. And while there isn't a huge variance of tempos in this opera, there are distinct sonic qualities to it. It is a gorgeous score. The prologue gets a cheer from the audience when it ends. It has built to a crescendo that quickens the pulse. But then we are treated to a nearly identical volume level for the next three hours. There are passages that require the orchestra to boom, and others to be played at almost a whisper. It all becomes quite monotonous. It's as if Mr. Jenkins tires out and just keeps the tempo going.

This is not an Opera that pulls in many people since it isn't well known, so most of the people attending are die hard aficionados. After the one intermission when I walked back in to see the second half, nearly half the audience was gone. The patron who sat next to me had seen this opera before and had made a point to come see it with his wife. He stuck it out till the end. His comment was "I don't recall this opera being so boring. It's spectacular to look at but very boring." He had summed up my feelings.

It pains me to give The Dallas Opera such a negative review since the rest of the season has been so brilliant. This is the first time they've present Boris Godunov and because of the huge cast requirements, it is not an opera that they will likely do again or, for that matter, many opera companies can afford to do. So if you want to hear a live version of this Opera, then go, but don't expect much.

BORIS GODUNOV by Modest Mussorgsky
The Dallas Opera
Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St. Dallas 75201
Runs through April 17th

Wednesday the 6th, Saturday the 9th, Friday the April 15th,
all at 7:30 pm and Sunday the 17th at 2:00 pm
Tickets start at $25 For tickets or information, go
to or call 214-443-1000.