It’s been a long time coming. For eighteen months, the Metropolitan Opera was dark due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic. It finally reopened cautiously this past September 27 with the new opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones. All audience members were required to produce proof of vaccination and photo ID, plus mandatory wearing of masks, in keeping with New York’s public health guidelines.
The Met Live in HD screenings in cinemas worldwide finally resumed on October 9, with Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in the original 1869 version, staged for the first time at the Met. Given it shorter length (by nearly two hours!), this version is two and a half hours long, performed at the Met without an intermission. The decision to do it without an intermission, no doubt, is to minimize physical contact among the attendees.
Based on my conversations with fellow opera lovers, the resumption of the Met screenings is being met with a mix of excitement and hesitancy. Is it safe to attend? Is it safe to be inside, sitting close together for several hours? After a quick search on the Cineplex website, I found the following document, which goes a long way to answer my questions here. It outlines the precautions being taken by Cineplex to ensure a safe environment.
I decided to try it out for myself with the Boris Godunov screening. Unlike the very well attended screenings in the past, this time it was a very sparse audience. Given that opera audiences are typically older, the low attendance shouldn’t be a surprise. To be sure, it will take some time to lure the audience back. Ultimately it comes down to individual, informed choice, doing what one is comfortable with. Speaking for myself, I felt reassured by the precautions taken.
Now to the opera. The German bass Rene Pape reprised his justly famous Boris, last seen at the Met in 2010. But performing it without a break makes the role of Boris positively Herculean. Pape paced himself carefully — no over-the-top vocal histrionics from him. That said, all the requisite vocal beauty and dramatic incisiveness were there, with plenty of nuances, helped in no small way by the camera closeups. The singer tackling Boris makes or breaks this opera, and Pape delivered. He received a huge, sustained — and well deserved — ovation at the end.
The Met has assembled an excellent cast without a weak link. Two voices new to me were Ukrainian tenor Maxim Paster as Shuisky and David Butt Philip as Grigory, both doing full justice to their respective roles. Renowned Estonian bass Ain Anger, whom I have heard in Germany, was a fine Pimen, albeit surprisingly with a hint of an incipient slow vibrato. Equally surprising was the totally idiomatic Russian of American bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green as Varlaam, until an opera friend told me later that he has a Russian wife — nothing like totally immersive language training. Finally, kudos to the beautiful tenor voice of Miles Mykkanen as the Fool. Toronto opera fans may remember his excellent outing in the COC’s Stravinsky double-bill a few seasons ago.
If there is anything I missed in the 1869 version, it’s the so-called “Polish Act,” added by Mussorgsky in a revision three years later. One could argue this act is out of place to begin with, but without it, one misses the more conventionally operatic vocal writing. Without the character of Marina, this opera simply lacks a central female figure. I would be remiss not mentioning the wonderful Met Chorus, vital in this piece. They received a huge ovation, also fully deserved. This production by Stephen Wadsworth is basically traditional and non-controversial, perhaps not the most visually arresting of Boris productions — if anything it’s too dimly lit for my taste. German conductor Sebastian Weigle led the Met’s forces with a knowing hand, if somewhat cool and controlled perhaps. But, overall it was an eloquent reading.
If you miss this, be sure to catch the next presentation, Fire Shut Up in My Bones on October 23 — a great opportunity for tradition-bound Met fans to experience something new. Stay tuned!
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