Boris Godunov, Metropolitan Opera, New York

When the Met unveiled its new production of Boris Godunov on Monday, one name was conspicuously missing from the credits: Peter Stein.

The German director was to have made his debut with Mussorgsky’s sprawling epic. He came up with an analytical concept, fusing straightforward narrative with socio-political comment, and he enlisted sympathetic designers: Ferdinand Wögerbauer (sets) and Moidele Bickel (costumes). He combined Mussorgsky’s 1872 edition with two episodes from the 1869 version, and demanded a big budget. Then, in late July, he quit.

The Met cited “personal reasons”. Rumourmongers suggested unhappiness with reviews for his production of Dostoyevsky’s The Demons at the Lincoln Center Festival. Stein complained to the New York Times of contretemps involving his visa application, and he derided the Met as “a factory”.

Enter Stephen Wadsworth, who bravely agreed to pick up the pieces. It is hard to know how many of the original ideas survived. Stein obviously sanctioned the sparse, semi-abstract decors and the lavish costumes, which respect history in Tsarist Russia yet flirt with Belle Époque mannerism at the Polish court. It is unclear if he envisioned the sort of oddities enforced by Wadsworth – handsome stage pictures framing symbolism here, naturalism there, and plot contradictions everywhere. The victorious crowd in the Kromy forest is now dominated by brutal sadists. Marina Mnishek has become a vulgar vamp, manipulated by a raunchy priest. The pretender Dimitry impersonates Superman. The Holy Fool functions as omnipresent hysteric.

Mussorgsky is protected in the pit by Valery Gergiev, who gestures mysteriously yet manages mostly vital results. Many basses make Boris bigger than life; René Pape makes him life-size, also poignant and splendidly sonorous. The supporting cast boasts Oleg Balashov as the aggressive Shuisky, Mikhail Petrenko as the powerful Pimen, Aleksandrs Antonenko as the heroic Dimitry, Vladimir Ognovenko as the crusty Varlaam and Andrey Popov as the lyrical simpleton. The all-important chorus roars mightily, whether stationed in concert formation or frantically miming populist agonies. Less imposing are Ekaterina Semenchuk, the rough and tough Marina, Evgeny Nikitin, the meek-toned Rangoni, and a pair of character-mezzos – Olga Savova as the Innkeeper, Larisa Shevchenko as the Nurse – who sound like sopranos in distress.

The performance rambles onwards and sometimes upwards for nearly four and a half hours. Even under ideal conditions, that would be a lot of Boris Godunov. ()

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.