When Boris isn’t Godunov – by Jack Buckley

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mussorgsky, Boris Godunovdirect transmission from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London at the Cinema Barberini, Rome, 21.3.2016 with the Chorus (Renato Balsadonna) and Orchestra of the ROH, Conductor Antonio Pappano. (JB)Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov Bryn Terfel
Prince Shuisky:John Graham-Hall
Andrey Shchelkalov:Kostas Smorignas
Grigory Otrepiev:David ButtPhilip
Pimen: Ain Anger
Xenia:Vlada Borovko
Yurodivy (HolyFool):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
Lighting designer: Mimi Jordan Sherin
Costume designer: Nicky Gillibrand
Movement director: Ben Wright
Director for live cinema: Jonathan Haswell 

Boris Godunov established itself in operatic repertory through the masterly performances of Fyodor Chaliapin –a protagonist who would never be equaled in that role, though the great Bulgarian, Boris Christoff also performed a much-admired account of the troubled czar.  Other interpreters have failed to measure up to these two giants, either musically or dramatically.

Mussorgsky died in 1881.  In 1896 Rimsky-Korsakov took the original score and made savage cuts of long sections of it, then composed new  pages to replace the cuts he had made as well as re-orchestrating  the entire opera.  A filmic equivalent would be Walt Disney taking over a film of Ingmar Bergman.  However, between 1906 and 1908 Rimsky made another edition in which he restored the cuts he had made as well as incorporating his own pages to replace those cuts.  The restored cuts were still subject to Rimsky’s revised orchestrations.  This is the version which Chaliapin and Christoff performed.

Mussorgsky’s original did indeed contain stark, unorthodox harmonies as well as lean, minimalist orchestrations. But no one had evidently informed Rimsky of Orwell’s ten rules (plus one) for the writing of good English: an eleventh rule said Break any of these rules rather than write anything barbaric.  Rimsky’s schoolmasterish “corrections” were given full reign.  Mussorgsky had used his ear rather than a harmonic and orchestration rulebook.

In July 1975 Gian Carlo Menotti staged Boris Godunov  at his Festival of the Two Worlds in Spoleto (some seventy miles north-east of Rome) using Mussorgsky’s first manuscript with just seven scenes, and conducted by twenty-five year old Christopher Keene.  This was an aural shock to all who thought they knew the opera.  They didn’t, of course.  What they knew was Rimsky’s Boris.  Oxford University Press Music Department published Mussorgsky’s first (seven scene) score.  The Spoleto shock would have been all the greater except that young Maestro Keene went out of his way to soften the Mussorgsky bleakness by making the score sound as much as possible like Rimsky.  Antonio Pappano has made the same mistake at the present ROH performance.  But I am getting ahead of the story.

Reviewing Spoleto for the New York Times, I explained the alternatives available to the presenters. Arthur Gelb, Arts Editor of the NYT, or one of his sub-editors, found a neat title for my piece: Will the Real Boris Godunov Please Stand Up.

In 1982, the Soviet Union’s most poetic filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky, turned his back on the Soviets and decamped to Italy, where he began making his great masterpiece, Nostalgia.  He also became friendly with Claudio Abbado, himself a leading light in the Italian Communist Party and anti-Soviet.  In 1983 Nostalgia  was issued to great acclaim.  Abbado told Tarkovsky he had been invited to conduct Boris  at Covent Garden and asked the filmmaker if he would like to be the stage director and explaining that he intended to use Mussorgsky’s original score which  illuminated the loneliness and paranoia of Boris.  This immediately fired Tarkovsky’s poetic imagination, producing the most beautiful staging I have ever seen at the Royal Opera House in 1983. Beautiful but chilling too.   Robert Lloyd was the protagonist.  This also included the Polish Act, but without Rimsky or other tinkerings. Covent Garden had also, later, a spell of staging the opera with Shostakovich’s re-orchestration.  The historian of vocal interpretation, Michael Scott, used to say Just stay in the bar during the Polish Act; Boris doesn’t sing, so you won’t miss anything.   I disagree.  The Polish Act contains  some magnificent music, all of it by Mussorgsky, though added at a later date.  I last saw the Tarkovsky staging in the nineties, where it had been hired out to the Turin Opera.  Sadly, it was badly in need of a fresh coat of paint.

Mark Berry, reviewing on this site the present Covent Garden new production, says he has never heard Bryn Terfel sing better.  Maybe.  But Terfel was not singing Boris.  He was not singing it for the very simple reason that he does not have the right voice to sing Boris.  I know that Pappano says he does.  But leave the conductor aside for the moment; I will come to his shortcomings in a minute.  Terfel’s delivery may have been based on tinkerings heard from Rimsky, Shostakovich or other hands, but it does not begin to address the requirements of Mussorgsky.  A serious, sad case of the right voice in the wrong opera.

Antonio Pappano is at the top of my league of today’s greatest conductors as my constant reports from Rome show, where he leads one of the world’s finest orchestras, largely shaped by his superb rapport with those excellent instrumentalists.  Music making doesn’t come better than his.  I am embarrassed to be writing what I must now say.  He has chosen to give us a Boris which is so imbued with the musicality of Rimsky that Mussorgsky doesn’t get a look in.

You will have gathered that I am the self-appointed council for Mussorgsky’s defence: my client’s soul shared much in common with Boris – aristocratic, alcoholic, neurotic, riddled with self-remorse, clinically self-destructive to an almost suicidal degree and ever ready to plumb deeper into life’s inconvenient truths: he lived – if you can call this living – the soul’s dark nights, which are swamped in agnosticism while burning with devout, unorthodox fervor.  Such comfort as the Mussorgsky soul has, comes from its agnosticism.  Not-knowing is its strength.  And that is its somewhat frightening gift to us.

Tony Pappano is an eternal optimist.  Good luck to them.  We need them.  But he conducts Boris with a mindset which is impregnated with Rimsky’s Disney-like flirtations.  What he gives us is a black and white performance of a score which is full of subtlety of vocal and orchestral nuances which causes performers and hearers to question everything.  Abbado’s performance – much aided by Tarkovsky’s staging- asks questions –not just of Boris but of ourselves. Uncomfortable, yes.  But Mussorgsky leads us where no other composer ever did.  All the Pappano phrases are exaggerated fortes  or pianos.  Abbado brought the show alive –grim as it was- before our very ears.  The Abbado edition was like the best thrillers: you never know what it going to happen next, even though you thought you knew the plot.  Abbado showed us that some of those assumptions are plain wrong.

Richard Jones’s staging started out with a clear declaration that it shared some of Mussorgsky’s haunting concerns: the suspended bridge stretching across  the entire width of the stage with stained-glass surrealist windows (Miriam Buether’s sets) invokes the music’s Eastern Orthodox mysticism (a key Mussorgsky sub-plot) but I found Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes somewhat drab and meaningless –especially Boris’s, which was more suggestive of Leonardo DiCaprio’s suffering hunter of The Revenant  than Boris lost in the weight of his crown.

Many have claimed that the People (the Chorus) are the main characters of Boris.  Mussorgsky is on record saying this claim is best upheld by being understated. Ben Wright does just this with his groupings and movements of the folks. Renato Balsadonna was less successful in his vocal preparation of the Chorus.  The echoing hush of the Eastern Orthodox music should haunt and echo from one scene to another as Mussorgsky sets it out.  But here it didn’t.  More like Hymns Ancient and Modern. Onward Christian Soldiers is not in the Mussorgsky hymnal. These Christians speak Russian.  And on that score their diction was excellent.  The crowd scenes were probably more effective in the video (Jonathan Haswell) than the theatre, especially where Haswell pulls the cameras back to give proper display of Wright’s poetic groupings.

Boris aside, all the other singing roles are minor, which is not to say that they are not well written.  John Tomlinson was superb as the world-weary, copyist monk, Varlaam, and John Graham-Hall had the right touch of cynical menace as Prince Shuisky with Rebecca de Pont Davies weighing in with all the right vulgarity of the pub landlady who knows everybody’s business.  The Holy Fool can sometimes steal the show, but not in Andrew Tortise’s account of it.

My case for Mussorgsky rests here Milord.  But it feels to me that the composer has been imprisoned without being allowed to speak in his own defence.

Jack Buckley

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