While the serfs suffered and the boyars bayed, Boris Fyodorovich Godunov, the Czar of Russia, wallowed in grief. Pushkin dramatized this moment in Russian history into a play, Borris Godunov, which Modest Mussorgsky turned into an opera, currently in production at the Lyric Opera.
The dazzling spectacle transports the audience back 400 years to a turbulent time in Russia's history; Ivan "the Terrible" had just reigned, leaving only one suitable heir, Dmitri, whose accidental death / murder sets the opera's drama in motion.
The opera hinges on its title character, embodied and sung majestically by the nearly-Russian Ferruccio Furlanetto, the first Italian to sing Boris at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. We first see him equivocating as the Duma (parliament) calls for him to become the next Czar. Once he finally accepts, his mind continues to be plagued by some unseen dread. The highlights of the opera are his soliloquies, in which he gives greater and greater hints as to his misery. But he never descends into full-blown madness, maintaining regal dignity until the very end.
Boris's downfall (that is, untimely death) is precipitated by Pimen, a monk writing a history of Russia who implicates the Boris in Dmitri's murder. Playing Pimen is another Italian bass, Andrea Silvestrelli, who sings with such an otherworldly resonance that I could have believed he was writing a history book of the future.
His fellow monk, Grigori, sung by American Erik Nelson Werner, takes this information and runs, literally, to Lithuania to build resistance to Boris's ill-begotten throne. His tenor voice is commanding and heroic, perfect for a renegade monk.
And then there's the chorus. Simple but effective, Mussorgsky's choruses in Boris are like folk songs or chants that contrast the inner turmoil of one man against the backdrop of the general population—something missing in, say, Macbeth. Visiting chorus master Michael Black deserved his exuberant ovation.
Lyric's production is, yet again, a visual feast: a simple but versatile set, gilded portraits of saints, deeply colored lighting, and delicate costumes make for delectable eye candy.
It's uncanny that Boris has made it into the cannon. Perhaps it's the inner struggle, grief over past mistakes, that resonates with people. An obscure, possibly illegitimate autocrat from a then-isolated country lives on immortally through the power of music. It would be like a composer writing an opera about Nixon - a couple hundred years in the future.
A world-class Boris supported by strong voices: history comes to life.