United Kingdom Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov: Mariinsky Opera, Tiffin Boys Choir / Valery Gergiev (conductor), Barbican, London, 3.11.2014. (RB)
Mikhail Kazakov: Boris Godunov
Anastasia Kalagina: Xenia, his daughter
Ekaterina Sergeyeva: Fyodor, his son
Sergey Semishkur: Grigory
Mikhail Petrenko: Pimen
Evgeny Akimov: Prince Shuisky
Roman Burdenko: Shchelkalov
Sergey Aleksashkin: Varlaam
Alexander Timchenko :Missal
Olga Sovaya: Innkeeper
Andrey Popov: Holy Fool
Elena Vitman: Nurse
Yury Vlasov: Niklitch
Vladimir Zhivopistsev: Boyar-in-attendance
Vitaly Yankovsky/Anton Permikov: Voices from the Crowd
Andrey Petrenko Principal Chorus Master
Irina Soboleva Musical preparation
There are multiple versions of Boris Godunov including two by the composer dating from 1869 and 1872, a hybrid which tries to retain the best music in both, and versions by Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich who both thought they could do a better job with the orchestration. Gergiev has recorded both the 1869 and 1872 versions with the Mariinsky Opera and in this concert performance at the Barbican he presented us with the lesser known 1869 version. This version is more compact, there is a greater fidelity to Pushkin’s drama, and it is characterised by its use of naturalistic declamation rather than the more conventional operatic style of the time.
The programme referred to the production as a concert performance and I was slightly dismayed at the start of the opera when I saw the initial group of male performers come up on to the stage and sit on chairs in front of music stands. They were all wearing black tie while the men and women in the chorus who were sitting behind them were also all wearing suits or evening dresses. We have come to expect so much more from opera performances in the concert hall nowadays (Glyndebourne did a terrific job with Rosenkavalier at the Proms earlier this year where the performers were all in period costumes, and there was an array of furniture, props and some basic scenery). The performers of the Mariinsky Opera therefore deserve a great deal of credit in being able to transcend these limitations and to transform the piece into a full blooded music drama.
The action in the opera takes place immediately after the death of Ivan the Terrible. Ivan’s eldest son is uninterested in politics and he leaves the running of the country to the eponymous Boris Godunov who effectively becomes regent. In order to consolidate his hold on power, Boris orders the extra judicial murder of Ivan’s youngest son, the Tsarevich Dmitry, and eventually succeeds to the throne. Throughout the opera various characters talk about Boris’ involvement in the death of the young Tsarevich so he is very much seen as a corrupt and immoral tyrant in the Richard III mould. There is also a Faustian element to the character as he finally accepts responsibility for his actions at the end of the opera and pleads for forgiveness and redemption (the final scene reminded me of the end of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus).
Mikhail Kazakov grabbed the role of Boris with both hands and made it his own. He has a wonderfully sonorous bass voice and managed to evoke rich dark colours, and sang with enormous power when required and a wide variety of vocal timbres. In the pivotal fifth scene he initially showed us some very tender and intimate feelings when he was talking to his family. However, when Prince Shuisky brought him the news of the young pretender challenging his right to the throne we saw him visibly change before our eyes into a raging tyrant ready to do whatever was necessary to secure his grip on power. The threats, the paranoia, the fierce denunciations and the ability to instil fear in his opponents all came through in this performance.
Mikhail Petrenko and Andrey Popov both did an excellent job in the roles of Pimen and the Holy Fool. Petrenko injected a sense of reverence and spiritual integrity into his monologues and gave us a radiant, lyrical tone and flexible phrasing while also investing some phrases with dramatic import. Popov’s portrayal of the Holy Fool was quite extraordinary: he came across as part idiot savant, part sage and prophet and the tone, pronunciation and intonation were all perfect for the role. The wonderful scene where he asks Boris to kill the children “as he did the little Tsarevich” and then says that he is unable to pardon him because “to pray for Tsar Herod is forbidden – the Virgin Mary will not allow it” was very affecting and unsettling.
The rest of the cast did a reasonably good job with the remaining roles. Sergey Aleksashkin did a good job bringing out the comedy in his scene as the drunken monk, Varlaam but some of the singing was very ragged and uneven and it sounded as if he needed to clear his throat at one point. Evgeny Akimov did a good job in the role of Prince Shuisky, Boris’ royal enforcer: he had a gorgeous lustre to his voice and was able to soar effortlessly into the upper tenor register. Anastasia Kalagina also gave us an excellent portrayal of Boris’ devoted daughter Xenia while Yury Vlasov brought a dangerous sadistic edge to his portrayal of the policeman, Nikitich. The Mariinsky chorus did a brilliant job in the crowd scenes successfully singing with enormous power against big orchestral forces at various points but also bringing out the elements of religious mysticism, the dissent and the wider social concerns.
Gergiev kept the Mariinsky orchestra, chorus and soloists on track throughout the evening. Each of the eight dramatic tableaux were brilliantly realised and a powerful political and human drama emerged. The orchestra provided excellent support and they gave us bright bells and brass fanfares in the opening crowd scenes, some delicate traceries of sound in the violas and soft grained tone colours in the Monastery scene, and fluctuating and highly charged emotional states in the pivotal fifth scene in the Kremlin. Gergiev has certainly made a very strong case for this version of the opera being performed much more widely than it is at present – I hope the major opera houses around the World will in due course give us their own productions of this extraordinary piece.