Mussorgsky – Boris Godunov

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday April 23 2006

Conductor: Kazushi Ono. Production: Klaus Michael Grüber. Boris Godunov: José van Dam. Feodor: Janja Vuletic. Xenia: Irina Samoilova. Xenia’s nurse: Nina Romanova. Prince Suisky: Ian Caley. Andreï Shchelkalov: Andrej Breus. Pimen: Anatoli Kocherga. Grigori, Dimitri: Vsevolod Grivnov. Varlaam: Vladimir Matorin. Missaïl: Vjaceslav Vojnarovskij. Hostess: Ekaterina Gubanova. Nikitch / Police Officer: Jacques Does. Simpleton: Dmitri Voropaev. Orchestra and chorus of La Monnaie.

What would we do without critics and their superior intellects? There are times when, like the oldest daughter in The Sound of Music, with a mental age of just 16 going on 17, we need someone older and wiser to explain to us things beyond our ken.

La Monnaie is one of those theatres where subscribers all come on the same day and in the same seats, so you get to know your neighbours and chat at the interval. No-one in my vicinity seemed to find this production of Boris outstandingly clever or beautiful. Le Monde had suggested it might be one of the finest productions of the operatic year, so I had high hopes. But what I saw was basically an unremarkable single-space production with the odd prop. True, the floor was sometimes a giant chess board, but that seemed to me too obvious a metaphor. The chorus was in modern homeless dress with plastic bags, others wore the costume of various periods: this is now so usual I didn’t give it a thought.

Then there were various gadgets or gimmicks of an inscrutable kind: for example, a dancer as an angel on the rear wall, one wing out, one pointing down. That angel is déjà-vu: I’ve seen him in Lohengrin (the swan) and St François at the very least. There was some neon, there was a giant metal fly (I think a reference back to Feodor’s song), there was a Zeppelin painted to look like an eye… But there was no explanation in the programme, which for once I consulted, thinking that a director as well-known as Grüber must have had his reasons.

The acting, apart from Van Dam’s, was kind of half-hearted. Clearly, a director had been present, but the result was somehow lacklustre – especially in the folksy, “realist” scenes – the inn, Feodor (gawky and unconvincing) and the nurse, etc. Van Dam, as I said, acted up a storm; but the fact he was painted gold and wore a stiff, bell-like gold cape (over white) distanced him and reduced the effect. The hint at a parallel with the death of Jean-Paul II seemed as corny as the chess board. And Dimitri on his wooden horse at the end, in armour and with white plumes, was a bizarrely tacky ending. So I thought.

But the critics have come to the rescue. They must like Grüber a lot – perhaps he’s an affable toper who pays for all the drinks. I’ll translate some extracts from and all will be clear:

“For Klaus Michael Grüber […] men come and go but history presses on, eternally renewed. He mixes periods without opting for a full transposition. The chorus is that of the today’s poor, the great mass of those left by the wayside, wandering on stage with their wretched plastic bags. The Tsar, in contrast, is dressed in a golden cape – but this gold is leaden – recalling both the onion domes of orthodox churches and the figures in icons, which unravels along with the progressive undoing of his conscience. This world is as derisory as it is pitiful: in the Kromy forest we see funfair-style neon signs, a symbol of today’s consumerist Russia, a spaceship, symbol of the planetary pretensions of the Russia of yesterday, a horse on to which the usurper will leap, at once Peter the Great and Lohengrin, a symbol of the conquering ambitions of the Russia of a more distant past. But the concrete wall of the first tableau tells us that nothing really changes. At any rate, at the rear, squeezed into a crack, the archangel Michael has never managed to spread his wings. And Pimen, a hermit in red rags, is more isolated than ever in his cabin, like St Jerome with his lion.”

Van Dam sang his first Boris 30 years ago and was Boris in Brussels in the last production, 20 years back. He is still wonderfully musical in quiet passages, but is soon covered by the orchestra in the louder parts and, at volume, now has strength only in the upper medium. So he was overshadowed rather – both vocally and physically - by Kocherga as Pimen. Some don’t like Kocherga’s sound, somehow vastly cavernous but clear, but I find it fascinating.

Vladimir Matorin did his best, as usual, to inject some enthusiasm into the proceedings as Varlaam – in vain; and Dmitri Voropaev gave us an unusually lyrical, haunting Simpleton, a nice change from the usual squawking. The rest of the cast was sound but unmemorable, the chorus and orchestra in good form under Ono.