Sunday, 20 March 2016

Back to the original: Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov at Covent Garden

Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov - Royal Opera House - photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore
The Coronation Scene
Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov - Royal Opera House - photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Mussorgsky Boris Godunov; Bryn Terfel, Ain Anger, John Graham Hall, David Butt Philip, Joh Tomlinson, Ben Knight, dir: Richard Jones, cond: Antonio Pappano: Royal Opera House, Covent Garde
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 18 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Thrilling performances in Covent Garden's new production of Mussorgsky's original

Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov - Royal Opera House - photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Ben Knight, Bryn Terfel - photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore
My first experience of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov was at English National Opera in the 1980's (I think) when a rather venerable production was revived for a young bass singing the title role for the first time, John Tomlinson. So it was my great delight to discover that Tomlinson was still in harness for the Royal Opera House's new production of Boris Godunov, now in the role of Varlaam (we saw the performance on 18 March 2016). Richard Jones directs with sets by Miriam Buether, costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin and movement by Ben Wright. Bryn Terfel sang Boris, playing the role for the first time, with John Graham Hall as Shuisky, Ain Anger as Pimen, David Butt Philip as Grigory, Rebecca de Pont Davies as the hostess of the inn, John Tomlinson as Varlaam, Harry Nicoll as Missail, Vlada Borovko as Xenia, Ben Knight as Fyodor, and Andrew Tortise as the fool. Antonio Pappano conducted.

James Platt, David Butt Philip - Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov - Royal Opera House - photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore
James Platt, David Butt Philip
photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore
That first experience of Boris Godunov (given in Mussorgsky's revised version) seemed enormously long, and with the publication of David Lloyd Jones' edition of the opera it became common for opera houses to use a combination of both versions performing as much material from the opera as possible. Covent Garden's previous production, the thrilling one directed by film director Andre Tarkovsky, was one such. Now the circle as turned somewhat, and spurred by economics, opera houses are turning to Mussorgsky's shorter, more compact original version and it is this version which Richard Jones' production used.

In fact, we have rarely got the chance to hear Mussorgsky's 1869 original, as most performances have tended to add a few bits from the later version, Mussorgsky's revisions are too powerful to resist (this is what happened, I believe, with the 2008 production at English National Opera). But the original has its moments too, moments which are cut from the later revision possibly for being a bit too near the knuckle when it came to criticising the Russian regime (the Imperial censors were very touchy how you portrayed the Tsars, even murderous ones).

A big feature of Richard Jones' production was the way Miriam Buether' set designs included an upper level, brightly lit, which featured dumb show action related to the narrative. It is here that we saw the stylised murder of the young Dmitry, frequently repeated when Boris is on stage to show the way the event preys on his mind. During the big choral scenes, we saw the action inside so for the opening scene there were the boyars trying to persuade Boris to become Tsar, for the coronation scene we saw the coronation itself, & later the anathema being pronounced on the false Dmitry.

Ain Anger - Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov - Royal Opera House - photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Ain Anger
photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Buether's set designs were based round a fixed structure in which bells played an essential motif, which was dressed in quite a basic fashion for the more intimate scenes. For the big choral scenes which are a feature of the opera (the management of the Imperial Theatres found that the original version, which they rejected, had too many choruses), Jones put the large chorus on risers facing the audience. This was good for the projection of the choral sound (thrilling), and provided a wonderful tapestry for costume designer Nicky Gillibrand to work with (the coronation scene was particularly brilliant). But by the end of the evening it was difficult not to reach the conclusion that these choral scenes had been rather too static, lacking in essential movement and visual drama, and rather over reliant on the dumb-show being acted out over head.

The costumes were a mix of styles and eras, for the coronation scene and other state events the cast wore Russian-style costumes but the boyars wore jackets and trousers which could have been 19th century. John Graham Hall's Shuisky looked unnervingly like Oscar Wilde, and Jeremy White's Nikitch seemed to be wearing a shell suit. These costumes seemed to be deliberately badly fitting, and were complemented by a series of spectacularly bad wigs. Frankly, I am not certain what Jones and his designers were trying to say. I think there was a desire to universalise the work, without veering to far from the Russian origins and without being crass enough to present Boris as an icon of the modern world.

Boris is a role which seems to encourage singers to excess, Chaliapin-style. If I say that Bryn Terfel's account of the role was rather interior and lower key than usual, this has to be understood in the context of a general tendency to gross overstatement. Also, Terfel sang the role with little of the sort of sub-vocalisation beloved of earlier generations. In the opening scenes, Terfel's Boris intense and troubled, internalising the guilt which we could see made manifest in the re-enactment of the murder. Terfel brilliantly caught Boris's obsessive nature and it was this that Terfel made clear was nagging away throughout the evening. This was a very human Boris, one who interacted with his family in a natural and intimate way. Boris's solo scene after his scene with his family, in the middle of the opera, brought the singer forward on the stage as if communicating his inner thoughts to us in a bleak and racked way and the final death scene was simply thrilling.

Kostas Smoriginas, Andrew Tortise - Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov - Royal Opera House - photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Kostas Smoriginas, Andrew Tortise
photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore
John Graham-Hall made Shuisky's unattractiveness completely manifest, an oily dislikeable character who seemed to be always eavesdropping on others and clearly had fingers in many pies. I certainly did not trust him and could sympathise with Boris's mistrust. Estonian bass Ain Anger made a vivid Pimen, bringing out the drama in his long narration and holding our attention in a gripping manner. Anger was a name new to me, but I certainly hope to come across him again soon. David Butt Philip was quiet and intense as Grigory (later the false Dmitry). Without the Polish act he had less to work with, but created a real sense of a quietly obsessive character. Andrew Tortise sang the role of fool poignantly, expressively and very beautifully making one regret a little that we lacked the Kromy Forest scene

John Tomlinson was simply brilliant as Varlaam, very funny yet always part of a greater whole and was aided and abetted by Harry Nicoll. The scene in the inn with the two of them lying drunk in front of the inn counter was simply priceless. But the production ensured that we were always aware of the slightly sinister presence of David Butt Philip's Dmitry too.

Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov - Royal Opera House - photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov - Royal Opera House
photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Vlada Borovko made Xenia's aria very poignant, but the striking feature of Boris's family was that Fyodor was sung by boy treble Ben Knight. Knight was simply brilliant, singing Fyodor's music confidently, accurately and expressively (no mean feat when you are probably no older than 11 or so), and proved an expressive actor making a greatly sympathetic foil for Terfel in the moving scene where Boris says farewell to his son. That Fyodor had red hair like both the real murdered Dmitry and the false Dmitry was one of those neat little Richard Jones effects which work so well.

The smaller roles were all vividly taken with Jeremy White a positively violent and threatening Nikitich, Adrian Clarke as strong Mityukha, Rebecca de Pont Davies a characterful hostess, James Platt a nasty frontier guard, Sarah Pring a sympathetic nurse, and Nicolas Sales as a strong boyar, and.Kostas Smoriginas as Andrey Shchelkalov.

The augmented chorus was in superb voice, providing some thrilling and affecting singing. Whilst I might moan about the essentially static nature of the choral scenes, within these we got a lot of superbly detailed performance from the individual choral singers. Antonio Pappano and the orchestra will in similar thrilling form, so that the large scale pieces such as the coronation scene with its incessant bells made a tremendous musical effect.

This was an intelligent and thoughtful production with a very human Boris. I am not sure that Richard Jones' updating of the setting and the hints at the universality of the story did the production any real favours. The piece is too inextricably wedded to Russian history, but with a fine array of perceptive performances from the cast, chorus and orchestra this was certainly an event to remember.

Recommended recordings:
 Mussorgsky Boris Godunov (excerpts in English) - John Tomlinson, Opera North, Paul Daniel
Mussorgsky Boris Godunov - Robert Lloyd in Andrei Tarkovsky's production at Kirov Opera (DVD)

Elsewhere on this blog:

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