On October 11 the Met unveiled its first new Boris Godunov in three dozen years. Modest Mussorgsky’s epic portrait of Russia and its ruler in crisis, rich with musical evocations of elegance, cruelty, love, terror, and humor—in short, of life itself—is one of the most challenging operas in the repertory for any company. And the challenge may be even greater in the case of Stephen Wadsworth’s new production: Wadsworth replaced Peter Stein as director just a few months ago and has essentially had to conceive his approach to this monumental work in a matter of weeks. But Wadsworth is enthusiastic about the spectacular sets and costumes, which were designed before he came on board but which he has been refining to fit his ideas about the piece. And then, of course, he has the renowned German bass René Pape in the title role and the indefatigable Valery Gergiev in the pit. It’s hard to imagine two more exciting collaborators.

This Boris Godunov is Wadsworth’s first, but it’s a work he’s long revered. “I have known and loved this opera for 40 years,” Wadsworth says of a piece that’s at once a political thriller, a family drama, and the portrait of one great man’s deterioration. “I was actually offered a production of the Pushkin play [on which Boris is based] a couple of years ago and declined for various reasons—but gave the whole thing a great deal of thought.

René Pape, whose tortured tsar has won acclaim in Berlin and his native Dresden, is singing Boris for the first time at the Met. He has become a Met favorite with his dazzling portrayals of King Marke, Gurnemanz, Escamillo, and Méphistophélès, among others. Boris will call on his extraordinary range, breath control, and vocal endurance as well as his dramatic flexibility and gift for dominating a stage. “René has complexity, intensity, and irony,” Wadsworth notes. “His Boris will be very powerful and fresh.” General Manager Peter Gelb adds, “It was easy to schedule a new Boris once we knew René would be available, since he is the world’s leading interpreter of the role today.”

Wadsworth’s vast experience with operatic epics, subtle family dramas, and a range of classical theater has prepared him well for Boris. He sees the opera in grand historical terms. “There are two protagonists in Boris: the title character and the people he rules. Through the tsar we see the private mind of a flawed leader, and through the protean chorus—by turns passionate, volatile, needy, and reckless—we see the volatility of a people skeptical about their leaders. The third story is the emergence of the new regime, first as an idea, then in the planning, finally in action. In a bigger sense the opera is about history repeating itself, and sends an ever-fresh cautionary warning to us, and particularly to the Russia it celebrates. In the first scenes a new leader comes to power using violence, and the people are skeptical and fractious. In the last scene another new leader does the same, a mere seven years later, and the people are so caught up in the moment of rebellion they can’t see that the man they are cheering is no less guilty than the man they doubted in the beginning. And so the tragedy of history: that we always forget its lessons and make the same mistakes.”

Wadsworth attained international fame with Seattle Opera’s ongoing “green” Ring (so called for its emphasis on nature and Pacific Northwest-inspired set), and his Met work has included two other operas combining elemental family dynamics with political intrigue: Handel’s Rodelinda, starring Renée Fleming, and Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (which will be seen again at the Met this year, once again featuring Susan Graham and Plácido Domingo). He is approaching the special challenge of staging Boris Godunov at short notice with characteristic clarity and energy.

“I’ve needed to understand all the details in the design, rework some of it, study the piece carefully, devise the storytelling, and somehow allow time for ideas to flow, and not just information,” he says. The visual approach to the production is characterized by striking, progressively shiThing simplicity: a diff erent set for every scene, based on a raked stage with pavement-like wood blocks on the ground, designed by Ferdinand Wögerbauer. Moidele Bickel has created some 600 spectacular costumes for Boris’s many singers.

The approach is ambitious, as Boris Godunov demands. The opera takes place over almost a decade, in locations spread far apart. The work’s textual history is also complex, with two complete extant versions by the composer, several re-orchestrations by others and many compromise editions. Maestro Gergiev is opting for what musicologist Richard Taruskin calls the “supersaturated” Boris text, maintaining Mussorgsky’s orchestration but augmenting the 1875 version with the 1869 text’s stunning confrontation at Saint Basil’s Cathedral and some other passages. Mussorgsky’s later thoughts add more humor and texture to the piece. They also include the musically showy Polish act—seductive, bright, and full of dance tunes, a total contrast to what comes before—which also yields the male-dominated opera, for one act, to a prima donna. Mariinsky mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk plays the ambitious Polish princess Marina Mnishek.

Starting with the 1913 U.S. premiere under Arturo Toscanini, Boris Godunov has had a rich Met performance history, spanning several editions and languages (Italian, English, and—since 1974—Russian) and involving many great names, including Adamo Didur, Alexander Kipnis, Ezio Pinza, George London, Jerome Hines, Cesare Siepi, Giorgio Tozzi, Martti Talvela, and Nicolai Ghiaurov. Above all strides the towering figure of Fyodor Chaliapin, whose interpretation (heard at the Met nearly 40 times in the 1920s) set the world standard vocally and interpretively.

“Boris seems to me a good person who made a terrible mistake and ultimately cannot live with it,” Wadsworth says. “One moment that kills me is when he says to his son as he is dying, ‘Guard your innocence: it’s your power, your strength, your balance, your salvation.’ He yearns for his own lost innocence. That’s so sad. Every time Boris is onstage we look at him in close-up, and it’s wonderful how Mussorgsky always makes it feel so intimate by cutting to these close-ups from huge scenes of expectant crowds.”

The gorgeous, folk song-like first minute of this wondrous score sounds like a lyrical piece of chamber music. Suddenly Mussorgsky’s shattering “force of history” theme kicks in, paving the way for the stage-managed “popular” pressure on Boris to take the throne (Pushkin took a leaf from Shakespeare’s Richard III). That same theme resounds all down the vortex of historical and personal events that befall the opera’s two (flawed) historical antagonists, its title character and Grigory, the runaway monk who becomes the Pretender Dimitri. He poses as the true dynastic heir whom Boris—in Pushkin if not in history— caused or at least allowed to be killed. The episodic but emotionally gripping dramatic structure outdoes even its Shakespearean history-play models: Boris and the Pretender (sung by Aleksandrs Antonenko) never meet, and the only characters that interact with both are the monk Pimen—the witness and recorder of history—plus the suffering “Russian People” itself.

Wadsworth also notes the importance of the secondary but key character of the boyar Shchelkalov (Alexei Markov), secretary to the governing Duma and one of the few seemingly uncorrupt figures in the Russian state. His initial entrance, when he prays for Boris to accept power, finds him sorrowing at Russia’s woeful fate and cyclical man-made misfortune. “Shchelkalov articulates this quandary of history,” Wadsworth explains. “The music that introduces him here and, later, in the Duma scene is the heart and soul of the opera for me. Those five bars are about the terrible, sad ironies of life—how they can’t be solved and how much they hurt.”

And Shchelkalov is just one of many seemingly minor figures in Boris whom Wadsworth understands must be given their own distinctive life. As with Shakespeare, there are small parts—but no insignificant parts—in this huge, gripping musical drama. “Mussorgsky and Pushkin were interested in creating a moving picture of a man’s moral conscience and suff ering,” the director states. “And the result is a haunting, and great, work of art.” —David Shengold