Boris Godunov, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, March 2016Posted on 15 March 2016
The background to this opera is the reign of Ivan the Terrible, who curbed the power of the boyars and surrounded himself with reliable, talented men such as Boris Godunov, who became regent to the weak-minded Fyodor on Ivan’s death. During the regency, a later son named Dmitri died in slightly mysterious circumstances, and after Boris was proclaimed Tsar his opponent and senior boyar Shuisky led an independent enquiry into the death, concluding it was accidental. That didn’t stop Pushkin, on whose play Musorgsky based his opera, from portraying Boris as a murderer.
The ensuing guilt is vital to the composition, and before the start this production shows a silent mime: a thick bloated-headed boy playing with a spinning top has his throat cut by three assassins. The mime is repeated in moments when Boris’s mind turns to thoughts of his own guilt. Yet though the boy was dead, pretenders appeared and in this opera a scheming young novice Grigory, who with two older monks makes his way to Poland, raises an army and takes the throne on Boris’s death.
Musically this is weighty stuff, particularly in the original 1869 version performed here. Its initial rejection impelled Musorgsky to produce a revised version in more conventional operatic style, which Rimsky-Korsakov later reworked and re-orchestrated, before producing a second revision ten years later. Other composers and musical scholars then had a go too, and for the first time the ROH has gone back to the original.
From the sound of the tuba announcing Boris’s entrance, to the bass trombone announcing his death, the earthy fabric of this quintessentially Russian music was superbly brought out by Antonio Pappano and the orchestra. This original version, released from its later more Western accoutrements, emphasises magnificent choral writing, and the ROH chorus under Renato Balsadonna rose to the occasion.
So did the principals and soloists, with the extraordinarily versatile Bryn Terfel as a powerfully sympathetic Boris heading a wonderful cast that included the fine Estonian bass of Ain Anger as monk and chronicler Pimen, with John-Graham Hall convincing as a sly Shuisky, Andrew Tortise highly effective as the holy fool, and Ben Knight giving a touching performance as Godunov’s young son. John Tomlinson added huge depth in his vocal and stage performance as the rogue monk Varlaam who accompanies Grigory, strongly portrayed by David Butt Philip, to Poland. There, where their companion Missail (Harry Nicoll) plays the spoons in one of the few light moments of this opera, they encounter the excellent Rebecca de Pont Davies as hostess of the Inn from which Grigory absconds when Varlaam, his own life now at stake, hesitatingly corrects Grigory’s deliberate misreading of the arrest warrant.
This made a fine vignette in Richard Jones’s illuminating production, with set designs by Miriam Buether, along with Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes and Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting emphasising the stark difference between the world of the boyars and ordinary folk. Thankfully Jones has eschewed any allusion to modern politics, leaving the music of this original 1869 version to bring out what historian Lev Gumilev has called Russia’s passionionarnost.
Performances continue on various dates until April 5, with a live cinema relay on March 21 — for details click here.