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Magnificent Cast Energizes Slow-Starting 'Boris Godunov'

The Dallas Opera’s new Boris Godunov was a little slow getting off the starting blocks on Friday night, but once it found its pace it was strong all the way to the finish line.

One decided plus for the production is a magnificent group of singer-actors — and that especially includes the Boris.

Mikhail Kazakov has one of the most pleasant bass voices I’ve ever heard. It’s strong yet mellow, and it makes Boris’ every appearance something to eagerly anticipate. Add to that the fact that Kazakov is a superb actor and you have a Boris to remember.

Working with him is a large group of artists from Russia or close neighbors — all of whom are thoroughly at home in the Boris tradition. Ones that especially appealed to me Friday night were Sergei Leiferkus as the slimy Jesuit Rangoni, Elena Bocharova as Marina, Yevgeny Akimov as Dmitri and Vitaly Efanov as Pimen.

But the cast is not entirely Slavic. Americans David Cangelosi as the sinister Shuisky, Meredith Arwady as the inn hostess and Rebecca Jo Loeb as Fyodor all scored points.

Conductor Graeme Jenkins and the Dallas Opera orchestra and chorus added atmosphere and force, though occasionally there were synchronization problems.

One reason that the performance seemed a little slow-going at first may be owing to the unsympathetic set design of Nicolas Dvigubsky. It’s basically a single set with rocky protuberances fronting what seems to be the ruins of an old city. It’s massive, it dominates the Winspear stage and it robs the chorus of space to maneuver — a significant factor in such a chorus-prominent work as Boris Godunov. This is a major reason that the coronation scene seemed so claustrophobic Friday night.

One set has to serve as a monastery, a Kremlin square, a Kremlin apartment, a frontier inn, a Polish castle, the environs of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow and a forest. There’s no real sense of place.

Although the action is forced to the center of the stage — there’s little room at either side — this Boris triumphs because of its more intimate scenes and an outstanding cast.

Stage director Stephen Lawless gives credit to Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky for the original conception. The crowd scenes work as well as could be expected given the restrictions, and there are numerous small theatrical embellishments that enhance the action. One nice touch is a giant pendulum that swings slowly and ominously at the rear like something out of an Edgar Allan Poe horror story. Another is the occasional silent appearance of a young boy representing the ghost of the murdered tsarevich Dmitri.

One question that pops up when performances of Boris Godunov are mentioned is “Which Boris?” There have been so many versions that it’s hard to keep track. There are even two originals — one completed by Mussorgsky in 1869 and another completed by him in 1872. The scholar Richard Taruskin argues that they are different enough to be considered two separate operas.

The one the Dallas Opera is performing is basically the 1872 version, but with the St. Basil’s scene imported from 1869. This has the peculiar effect of making the Holy Fool character bewail the fate of Russia twice, once at St. Basil’s and once in the Kromy forest. Not what Mussorgsky had in mind, but the music is so moving it’s hard to object.

  • Dallas Morning News review (subs. req.)