ROH’s 1869 Boris Godunov Lacks Drama and Epic Grandeur

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Broadcast to the Empire Cinema, Basildon, Essex. 21.3.2016. (JPr)

Harry Nicoll (Missail) and John Tomlinson (Varlaam)
(c) Catherine Ashmore

Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov


Boris Godunov: Bryn Terfel
Prince Shuisky: John Graham-Hall
Andrey Shchelkalov: Kostas Smoriginas
Grigory Otrepiev: David Butt Philip
Pimen: Ain Anger
Varlaam: John Tomlinson
Missail: Harry Nicoll
Xenia: Vlada Borovko
Yurodivy (Holy Fool): Andrew Tortise
Xenia’s Nurse: Sarah Pring
Hostess of the inn: Rebecca de Pont Davies
Mityukha: Adrian Clarke
Frontier Guard: James Platt
Nikitich: Jeremy White
Fyodor: Ben Knight
Boyar: Nicholas Sales 


Director: Richard Jones
Set designer: Miriam Buether
Costume designer: Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting designer: Mimi Jordan Sherin
Movement director: Ben Wright

Directed for live cinema by Jonathan Haswell

The transmission was introduced by Katie Derham who described Boris Godunov as ‘Mussorgsky’s masterpiece of politics and power’ saying ‘It’ll make the American Primaries look tame!’

Whether a composer’s first thoughts are always the best is debatable, and here we had Mussorgsky’s 1869 original rather than the later 1874 version with the addition of a new character, Marina Mniszech, as well as the expansion of the existing female roles with additional songs for the Hostess, Fyodor, and the Nurse, and more for the Pretender (Grigory/Dmitry) to sing. Mussorgsky added to the adaptation of Pushkin’s drama his own lyrics, assisted by a study of the monumental History of the Russian State by Karamzin, to which  Pushkin’s drama is dedicated. Subsequent to that other composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich made an attempt at producing their own editions. Maybe what we heard here gets as close as possible to what Mussorgsky wanted us to hear. It was in one of those revisions that I last heard Boris Godunov when it was staged by the Royal Opera as well as English National Opera at about the same time over three decades ago. All this later tinkering with the score probably results in it focusing less on a reflection on the history of Mother Russia, its soul and oppressed people and rather more on a quasi-Shakespearian psychological case-study of Tsar Boris haunted by the murder he sanctioned which accelerated his rise to power. There is a loss, I suspect, of a great deal of epic grandeur, to leave us with something much more intimate.

There was plenty of glorious music but nothing ever struck me as sounding particularly Russian and at times it all was – because of Antonio Pappano’s refined yet sweeping and homogenised conducting – rather like a Verdi grand opera such as Don Carlos. I hesitate to write this but was no thought given to performing it in English? Maybe I am wrong but there was only one native Russian speaker in the principal cast (Vlada Borovko as Xenia) and the other singers must have learnt their roles phonetically and were just recreating sounds rather than communicating a text. This distances them even further from a real understanding of what they are singing about. Bryn Terfel – as a self-confessed ‘North Walian’ – in a backstage film discussed the difficulty of pronouncing the Russian ‘gli’ compared to the Welsh ‘l’. Of course there are many singers who often have no clue of what they are singing because of a different language but learning a role in Russian must be infinitely worse. Most of the current Boris cast are unlikely ever to sing their roles again unless it is in a Covent Garden revival so why not sing it in a language they and their audience understands?

Also not enough actually happens dramatically in this version to really justify a staging rather than just hearing it as a concert performance. Indeed, Richard Jones added little to illuminate the tale other than have endless repetitions of the murder of the true heir, the young Dmitry, shown playing with his spinning top on the gallery of a split-level stage. This is to justify how much this deed played on Boris’s mind when he is on stage. Although there is 135 minutes of music in this 1869 version Boris doesn’t get much to do and only really has two big scenes – one of which is his death.

We see a reluctant Boris Godunov crowned Tsar following Dmitry’s death. Richard Jones – or is it Mussorgsky himself – adds some doubt as to whether he really sanctions it or whether he was manipulated into power by unseen forces. There was so much to explore here to give the story some twentieth-century relevance but Jones ignores this to make it a simple story, simply told. In true Anastasia-fashion Grigory, a former novice, claims he is Dmitry and attempts to overthrow Boris.

If you have ever seen any of Richard Jones’s recent productions at Covent Garden, Glyndebourne or English National Opera you will probably know what to expect and there are no real surprises. Miriam Buether’s set is probably the inside of a great cathedral but Jones restricts the performance space so the chorus can do little but wander on, stand around and then go offstage again until next time. There is the familiar use of regularly patterned walls, use of multiple copies of the same portraits, slight grotesques (the Hostess) or similarly costumed characters (the Boyars). It is not a big stretch of the imagination to predict what his forthcoming La bohème for Covent Garden might look like!

From what I could hear through the cinema speakers it was wonderfully played and sung … if not entirely idiomatic.  Bryn Terfel is singing the role of Boris for the first time;  he is bear-like, weary and a broken man from the first moment he steps on stage. Boris loves his own son deeply and when everything gets too much for him he succumbs to mental disintegration and passes his crown to his son. Because this Boris has no sense of a ‘journey’, his tragic denouement has been so inevitable that it left me cold. Terfel looked and sounded very weary and I wasn’t certain how much that was just the character he was portraying. He is an incomparable artist but seemed to be emoting merely for the sake of it. His was a very ‘internalised’ Boris and his high bass-baritone didn’t always sound appropriate for the role.

On this occasion Terfel was probably out-sung – and certainly out-acted – both by John Tomlinson, himself a famous Boris, as the vodka-swilling monk Varlaam and the deeply authoritative Ain Anger as Boris’s mentor and conscience, the chronicler Pimen, somewhat of a prototype Gurnemanz. In what I believe is his 39th season at Covent Garden Tomlinson steals the show in his slapstick Inn scene, aided and abetted by Harry Nicoll’s equally drunk Missail enthusiastically playing the spoons!

In this 1869 version (as explained above) few others get much to sing but the whole cast acquit themselves well although Vlada Borovko’s appealing Xenia does somewhat highlight the pronunciation deficiencies elsewhere. David Butt Philip as the impostor Dmitry sings the vastly underwritten role attractively but he has has come and gone by halfway through the opera. John Graham-Hall skulks around effectively as a rather conspiratorial Shuisky and Tiffin School’s Ben Knight sings plaintively and is deeply affecting as Boris’s son, Fyodor. The chorus sounded as good as always but looked in need of some new blood and this is something their incoming chorus director, William Spaulding, might address. In Jonathan Haswell’s close-up direction for cinema some of them too clearly showed they lacked much idea of the purpose of their involvement and seemed to be going through the motions.

Jim Pritchard

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