An exotic and irrational entertainment, Johann Mattheson's ''Boris Goudenow" may not be a great opera, but it offers more than three hours of delightful music, and that's plenty good enough.
Mattheson's opera had to wait 295 years for its first staged performances enterprisingly presented this week by the Boston Early Music Festival. The composer was a considerable musician best remembered today for having dueled with Handel (his sword broke on one of Handel's metal buttons). His music may not transcend its time and place to probe the human condition the way Handel's does, but it is continuously pretty, inventive, and charming. His dance rhythms are perky and he can put together an ensemble; best of all, his melodies have an irresistibly sensuous Italianate curve to them and they linger in the memory. One number, the death aria of the old Czar, does arrive at pathos, at least when the violin obbligato is delivered as meaningfully as concertmaster Robert Mealy did last night.
Mattheson's own libretto, freely switching between German and Italian, crosses over three genres. The political plot is familiar from Mussorgsky's famous opera on the same Russian historical figure, although Mattheson's Boris connives rather than murders his way to the throne. There is also a complicated but conventional romantic plot involving three couples at cross purposes. And finally there is some lowlife comedy. Tenor William Hite played the loutish servant to the hilt, rejoicing in the flatulence jokes and lewdly earthy humor.
BEMF mounted an entertaining show, with lavish-looking period sets and costumes by David Cockayne and Anna Watkins, respectively; a silhouette of the Moscow skyline won a special hand. Lucy Graham supplied pertinent and entertaining choreography and collaborated with Nils Niemann on the fluid stage direction. Some singers merely swam through the baroque choreography of hands and arms, but a few internalized it, focused it, and made it effective.
The cast mingled early-music specialists with others who range more widely. The specialists, especially the sopranos, tended to tweet, compared to the all-out effort of the superb orchestra and its dazzling continuo section. Not to mention the rolling Slavic bass of the talented and personable Vadim Kravets in the title role. On the other hand, the more outgoing singers sometimes lacked finesse. Of the three leading sopranos veteran BEMF diva Ellen Hargis was most effective because she has learned to act within this idiom, and her upper tones can still bloom. Strong-voiced Colin Balzer was the more persuasive of the two leading tenors; Julian Podger indulged in a distastefully mincing vocal and stage characterization of the villain. Bass-baritone Olivier Laquerre was touching as the old Czar, and tenor Aaron Sheehan and Polish bass Marek Rzepka offered well-sung, vivid characterizations of lovelorn boyars. Many prominent young singers appeared in the chorus, and the PALS Children's Chorus made a highly professional showing.
The crowd roared its loudest approval when co-musical directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs appeared onstage at the end. Either one of them could have seized the sceptre and been proclaimed Czar.