Best known for his 2002 film Russian Ark, which was filmed at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in one single unedited shot, Sokurov first came to international attention with his 1996 film Mother and Son. Other titles familiar to Western film buffs include Father and Son (2003) and The Sun (2004). He has made 16 feature films and 28 documentaries (including one on Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya completed last year) since 1978, but has never before worked in live theater.
Sokurov's production, one of only two new stagings this season, replaces one that the Bolshoi had used since 1948. The season's other new production, an updated Eugene Onegin by director Dmitri Chernyakov, also replaced a half-century-old staging of a Russian cultural icon — and created tremendous disagreement in the process: many observers were impressed by the staging's dramatic power and many others were outraged at the liberties taken with such a revered piece of Russia's cultural patrimony. (Vishnevskaya, once the Bolshoi's prima donna assoluta, claimed to have left the opera in tears, moved her planned 80th birthday gala away from the theater, and wrote a letter to management saying, "To the end of my days I will not escape my shame at participating in that public desecration of our sacred national treasure." In response, Bolshoi general director Anatoly Iksanov scheduled two additional performances of the production.)
To allay fears of an avant-garde Boris — a classic historical epic based on a play by the near-deified Alexander Pushkin — at the nation's flagship opera house, Sokurov and Bolshoi management went out of their way to reassure the public that there would be no Regieoper here. In a statement released to the press and quoted in The Moscow Times, the director wrote that "we won't be perpetrating a revolution ... because we well understand that we are operating within the boundaries of Russia's traditional national culture." The director stressed that he saw the work as a story more of relationships between people (and their own thoughts and feelings) than of struggles for power. Early reviews of the production, which opened the night before last, appear to be quite favorable.
The staging isn't the only new aspect of this Boris. The Bolshoi, having used Rimsky-Korsakov's lavishly orchestrated version of the work ever since the early Soviet period, is performing Mussorgsky's stark original scoring for the first time. The version used will be that of 1871, which includes the "Polish Act." Company music director Alexander Vedernikov conducts, with basses Mikhail Kazakov and Taras Schonda alternating in the title role.
There are four further performances of Boris Godunov tonight through May 18 on the Bolshoi's New Stage. More information is available at www.bolshoi.ru/en/.
Yet for all the good news about this new production and its reception, there is sadness at the Bolshoi. Opening night was dedicated to the memory of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who died on Monday (April 23); tonight's performance is in honor of the great Mstislav Rostropovich, who passed away this morning.
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All photos by Damir Yusupiov/Bolshoi Theater.