“Context” is all the rage in our concert programming these days. Ever since education in Western music was largely abandoned in favor of new liberal arts subjects like Gender in the Kitchen and the Psychology of Self-Abuse, impresarios have been desperately trying to reconnect audiences to Mozart, Brahms, Stravinsky et al., by linking them to historical trends, literary affinities and biographical influences. The Metropolitan Opera has so far avoided any such theme-park packaging. Perhaps unintentionally, however, it has recently put on a pair of operas-Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes -the juxtaposition of which proved remarkably illuminating.
Aside from featuring antiheroes who are responsible for the deaths of boys-Boris Godunov becomes the czar of 16th-century Russia by ordering the murder of the throne’s rightful heir, and the brutality of the Suffolk fisherman Peter Grimes brings his apprentices to violent ends-the two operas might seem to have little in common. What could be farther apart than Mussorgsky’s sweeping chronicle of Russian despotism, mass suffering and international intrigue, and Britten’s microscopic view of English villagers whose smug conformity crushes a prickly, independent loner? And yet seeing these two works on successive nights was to be reminded that Boris and Peter , despite their having been written 70 years apart in countries as different as Russia and Britain, might be described as the fraternal twins-the Castor and Pollux-in the operatic pantheon.
Both operas are among the few genuine tragedies in the modern repertory, driven by protagonists whose blind willfulness ends in madness and who are beset by that rarest of operatic emotions: guilt. Also unusual is the prominence each of them gives to the chorus. In Boris , the despot’s rise and fall is mirrored at every turn by the longings and despair of the Russian masses who swarm the stage. In Peter Grimes , the East Anglian fisherfolk transcend their seeming banality to become as terrifying to us as they are to the paranoid title character.
Musically, both operas owe much of their immediacy and depth to the ingenious use of popular musical idioms-hymns, ballads, anthems-that are enveloped and heightened by bold-stroked tone-painting in the orchestra, which becomes so vivid as to make scenery almost superfluous. The later opera- Grimes was written in 1945-occasionally echoes the earlier one in what can only have been a deliberate borrowing, as it were, on the part of Britten. The most notable instance of this is in the staccato rhythms and quirky figurations in the third Sea Interlude, which immediately recall the clamorous opening bars of Mussorgsky’s Coronation Scene.
Both of the Met productions are old-the Boris dates from 1974, the Grimes from 1967-and the former has aged badly. From the opening scene outside the Monastery of Novodevichy, near Moscow, we are in a folkloric, Socialist Realism greeting card (St. Basil’s onion dome dangles from a wire). Richly costumed, the creaky design would have been unexcitingly tolerable if there hadn’t been so many gaffes and missed opportunities in the staging: a clock that refuses to cooperate with Boris’ terrible forebodings about time; a fountain that blocks the Pretender Dimitri from view; nonsensical comings-and-goings at the scaffold in Kromy Forest; and, most damaging, a deployment of the chorus as nothing more than a huddled mass, with the result that these poor kulaks had all the presence of an offstage choir.
Fortunately, the musical level was very high. Valery Gergiev, the charismatic maestro from St. Petersburg who is the Met’s new principal guest conductor, was in the pit and he brought out all the telling dramatic detail in yet another “new” orchestration-by one Igor Buketoff-of Mussorgsky’s problematic score. Despite a tendency to peter out at the end of several scenes, Buketoff’s labors struck me, on first hearing, as a plausible middle course between the sometimes crude starkness of the original version and the splashiness of Rimsky-Korsakov’s subsequent embellishments. Mr. Gergiev was joined by stalwarts of his Kirov Opera, whose linguistic ease and familiarity with their roles lent a wonderful authenticity of speech and acting style. In a uniformly strong cast, the standouts were Olga Borodina’s voluptuous, alarming Marina, Vladimir Galouzine’s gleaming-toned Grigory, and Sergei Leiferkus’ steely, scheming Rangoni.
In such company, the American Samuel Ramey seemed something of an interloper in the title role. Mr. Ramey’s trim athleticism and darkly elastic bass-baritone made for an unusually lithe Boris-his final tumble from the throne was a marvel-but he is an actor of stock gestures, “effective” rather than interesting. His was a by-the-book Boris-for the most part, a closed book.
By contrast, his brother in antiheroism, the Peter Grimes of Philip Langridge, was magnificently realized. In a role that is as inviting to interpretation as King Lear, the haggardly handsome British tenor eschewed, on the one hand, the titanic explosiveness of a Jon Vickers and, on the other, the aura of lost nobility of an Anthony Rolfe Johnson. His tormented fisherman was a brooding, dangerous, yet strangely sympathetic outsider-Al Pacino in a peacoat. Mr. Langridge’s singing had a non-operatic crooning quality as though he were singing to himself, and his body language-coiled, crouched, ready to spring-was riveting.
He was in excellent company. Carolyn James’ Ellen Orford seemed a bit stolid at first, but with her bright, top-heavy soprano she warmed up and delivered a strong, sweet performance of the schoolmistress, the only gleam of light in this grim affair. Alan Opie’s Balstrode was gruffly attractive, and the chorus of townspeople-many of whom had perhaps been part of that faceless Russian mass-took on vibrant life. For once at the Met, each of the choristers had a distinct, human identity. The conductor was the British maestro David Atherton, an old hand at Britten, and he and his forces attacked this hallucinatory score with such whoosh and bite and rhythmic crackle that we might have been listening to one of Duke Ellington’s swinging Harlem suites. This was one of those nights at the Met when everything clicked to thrilling perfection, and it was dismaying to see the house half-full. Why are New Yorkers so allergic to the works of one of the century’s two greatest opera composers? One solution to the Met’s Britten Problem might be to lower the ticket prices for his prickly operas, to bring in a younger, more adventurous crowd.
The century’s other supreme opera composer was, of course, Richard Strauss, and the Met’s first new production of the spring season introduced Capriccio , the composer’s last work for the stage, to the house repertory. Straussians love this 1942 “conversation piece” as the summing up of the great man’s long career, revolving as it does around an intellectual debate on the subject of Words versus Music, peopled with many of the operatic types who graced his previous music-dramas, from wistful aristocrats to Italian singers to knowing servants, and dressed up in music that wittily incorporates in-jokes to other composers (Gluck, Verdi, etc.) as well as to Strauss himself. Strauss initially thought of the piece as a curtain-raiser to one of his last mythological operas, Daphne , but was persuaded by his co-librettist, the conductor Clemens Krauss, to expand it into an evening-length one-act.
Even with the Met’s intermission, an opera that consists of two hours and 40 minutes of back-and-forth about an issue whose resolution is clear from the outset-in opera, of course, the sovereign element is music-can become awfully tedious. I, for one, have always wished that Strauss had stuck to his original intentions. The Met’s production, which was supervised by John Cox, is a pretty-looking party, attended by a fine ensemble of well-schooled and handsome guests, led by Kiri Te Kanawa as the beautiful, widowed Countess, the muse who ignites the debate. With Andrew Davis conducting, Strauss’ delicately “talky” music was extremely well served. But, God, how it dragged.
There is a trend to make operas more accessible by moving the time in which they were set closer, but not too close, to the present. I don’t buy this: If you’re going to “update,” then why not go all the way and update into the here-and-now? How is sense improved by imposing yet another historical layer on what is already historically layered? By shifting the party in Capriccio from the French Enlightenment to a 1920′s Parisian drawing room, the Met’s production made all the arguing about the merits of 18th-century opera reforms sound silly. Why were these people babbling on about Gluck and Couperin when, to all appearances, they should have been talking about Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Diaghilev?
Things were made murkier by the decision to remove all mirrors from the opulent drawing room. The tricky business of mirroring-of words and music, of art and life-is what Capriccio is fundamentally about. When Kiri Te Kanawa, looking splendid in sequins and singing with greater radiance than I have heard from her in years, addressed the subject in the Countess’ glorious closing monologue, she did so not to the mirror that is called for in the stage directions but directly into the auditorium. In front of her was a fire screen, its purpose being, I can only guess, to suggest that the invisible mirror over the invisible fireplace was us-the audience-gazing back at her. It was a familiar and, I’m afraid, not terribly helpful conceit-more “context,” I suppose.