“We are against cancel culture,” said the La Scala general director Dominique Meyer in laudable defense of his theater’s choice to open its new season with Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, a—gasp—Russian opera. Although planned well before Vladimir Putin’s ill-fated invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, the decision to stage the quintessential work of the Russian national school raised hackles among many Ukrainians, who objected to the planned new production.

The Ukrainians were, however, only one group among many that protested this year’s “Prima” (the Milanese locals’ word for the season’s opening night). The anti-globalist Left was out in force, as it usually is on this august occasion, and was confronted by a strong detachment of carabinieri. Early in the morning of December 7—Pearl Harbor Day in the United States, but St. Ambrose’s Day in Milan—climate activists from an Italian outfit depressingly named “Ultima Generazione” (“Last Generation”) doused the neoclassical theater’s façade with paint, as some of their fellow fanatics have been doing to famous paintings in European museums. A trade union held an outdoor candlelit dinner in near-freezing temperatures to protest soaring energy costs. Suffering from arts-budget cuts, La Scala’s own staff presented letters with demands to the president and prime minister of Italy, both of whom attended the season-opener.

La Scala has held benefits to raise funds for the Ukrainian people, and others have pointed out that Boris Godunov is hardly flattering to Russia’s rulers. A somber meditation on the nature of power and guilt, it recounts the tale of its title character, who reigned from 1598 to 1605, at the beginning of what Russians remember as the “Time of Troubles.” Based on an incendiary play by the Russian national poet Alexander Pushkin, the opera posits that Boris cemented his rule by murdering the last heir to Russia’s founding Rurikid dynasty, the unforgivable guilt for his crime driving him to madness.

The season-opening performance of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at La Scala, Milan. Photo: Brescia e Amisano.

Historians of the period find the evidence for his alleged crime far from conclusive, but the story is just too good to forget. It also stands out as a searing critique of absolute power: Meyer demurred from making any comparisons to Putin’s regime, though Pushkin’s play was banned from performance for forty years after its publication in 1826. Only in the reformist era of Tsar Alexander II did it see the light of day, so successfully, in fact, that the imperial theaters—which were directly attached to the Romanov court—commissioned Mussorgsky to adapt the drama for opera.

Premiering in 1869, the effort proved insufficient. Mussorgsky’s spare arrangement of the tale into seven scenes, and the absence of a love story, demanded revisions. He added the historical romance between the runaway monk Grigoriy, who pretended to be the murdered prince, and the Polish princess Marina Mniszech, whom Grigoriy marries and brings with him to Moscow. Mussorgsky also added a scene set in the Kromy Forest, which explodes with the rebellious rage of the Russian people. 

From the revised version’s premiere in 1874 until about ten years ago, this is what the public almost invariably saw. As the opera world chases a more curatorial ethos, however, the rejected version of 1869 has taken a virtual monopoly in performance. It is the only version onstage in Paris, Berlin, London, and now Milan. St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater has favored it even though it keeps a production of the revised version in repertoire. The Metropolitan Opera’s production of 2010 preserved the revision with particularly memorable staging for the additional scenes, but for cost-cutting reasons the Met adopted the scaled-down approach for its revival in 2021.

The original version has some advantages. It is shorter, though La Scala staged it with an intermission, perhaps so that the paparazzi could drink its fill of the splendidly coutured glitterati in attendance at the season opener. Boris’s monologue on the consequences of achieving the highest level of power is in this version more haunting and introspective than in the revision. But the absent scenes are keenly missed. The Polish Act of the revision adds a strong sense of political intrigue in addition to its love story and expository dances. The rebellious fury of the populace balances Boris’s psychological meltdown.

The season-opening performance of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at La Scala, Milan. Photo: Brescia e Amisano.

Comparatively, the curatorial argument fails to hold up. We know many of Giuseppe Verdi’s operas in their revised versions and have kept them in place. Who could imagine Simon Boccanegra without its riveting council-chamber scene, which was put in later, or Macbeth without the scintillating aria “La luce langue,” added more than twenty years after the fact? The Met, among a few other houses, has reworked the French version of Don Carlo with music that was later restructured or cut in the Italian version. The revision of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser, we might also remember, includes a luscious ballet that few directors hazard omitting.

As it was, this Boris proved well worth it. Ildar Abdrazakov’s voice sits more in the baritone range, but it has darkened and thickened in a way that allowed for a stunning portrayal of the title character. Singing Boris is the natural ambition of any Russian bass, and now, with an excellent legato and well-practiced piano singing, Abdrazakov has come into his own. Absent the revised version’s love story, there are no equals to the title role in the cast of characters, which becomes an ensemble of eccentric monks and bumptious pretenders, scheming boyars and drunken misfits. Among the standouts is the stentorian bass Ain Anger in the role of the elderly monk Pimen, who relates the details of Boris’s crime and later confronts him. The tenor Dmitry Golovnin’s Grigoriy had a fine, clarion tone. Norbert Ernst sang villainously as Prince Shuysky, a courtier who undermines Boris (and later succeeded him as tsar). La Scala’s music director Riccardo Chailly led the performance with a lighter touch than one usually hears but nonetheless delivered a fine rendition of Mussorgsky’s score.

Kasper Holten’s production burnishes the solid reputation he has built in his native Denmark and as the director of opera at London’s Royal Opera House. The action literally leaps from the pages of history, as the opera’s medieval chronicles unreel, in Es Devlin’s sets, in a rolling scroll on which the characters perform. Other torn pages are magnified for background sets. Ida Marie Ellekilde’s costumes place the story in the time of the opera’s composition, with sparse props suiting the locales of the individual scenes. Throughout, Boris’s appearances are shadowed by the mute character of the murdered prince, who haunts him in a bloodied costume. The overall effect was hardly traditional, but it lived up to the excellent reputation for stagecraft that La Scala has consistently garnered as it charts a course free of the hostile political and aesthetic currents of our times.

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