Monday 24 November 2008

Review of "Boris Godunov"

When I first saw Boris Godunov in the original version (at Munich's Staatsoper in the '90s) it seemed like abbreviated highlights of the full opera. But then I was used to the very full version done at ENO (with John Tomlinson as a memorable Boris) and at Covent Garden (in the Tarkovsky production, originally with Robert Lloyd).

Both of these, it should be remembered, used David Lloyd Jones's edition and performed everything Mussorgsky wrote including the St. Basil's Cathedral scene from version 1 which did not make it into version 2. In Mussorgsky's 2nd version, the Simpleton sings only in the final Kromy forest scene, whereas in the versions I am talking about he appears twice, both outside St. Basil's Cathedral and in the final scene.

Thus performed, the opera is a long rambling piece, where the chorus features as the protagonist. The original version is more concentrated and Boris emerges more as the lead character. Frankly this shorter version came as something of a relief on a busy weekday evening, when the longer, more leisurely version could have been a bit of a trial.

We saw the new ENO production on Wed. 19th November. Tim Albery's production, in a setting by Tobias Hoheisel, used a fixed set, a wooden barn-like structure with an uneven floor and great doors which could open to disclose events happening behind. The result was apposite for the rougher scenes but less so for those in Boris's apartments.

The feeling was that both set and version of the opera were chosen for reasons of economy; this seemed to be confirmed in scene 3 when the inn consisted of simply a mobile drinks cart and a couple of stools. No Matter. What was important was the performance.

The opening scene sounded as glorious as ever, though the decision to place some percussion in the balcony meant that those of us in the upper reaches of the theatre (we were in the front Upper Circle) got a rather distorted aural experience. The sounds of a struck metal plate dominated. Peter Rose's Boris sounded mellifluous and thoughtful with beautifully shaped melodic lines, meditative rather than deeply troubled.

Brindley Sherratt's Pimen was truly impressive, with Gregory Turay providing able support. Such was Turay's appeal that I rather regretted not having the Polish act so I could hear more of him. Sometimes Pimen comes over as a boring old fart (the Gurnemanz of Russian opera) but not here where Sherratt was vivid and enlivening.

By contrast the Inn Scene was a bit subdued. Yvonne Howard did her best as the hostess but Albery seemed to take the humour rather seriously and little of the rumbustiousness of other productions came through. I have vivid memories of Haakon Hagegaard proving himself a fine comedian at the Royal Opera House.

Boris's scene with his children is shorter in this version though Sophie Bevan and Anna Grevelius proved very apt as the children. But here the limitations of Rose's Boris came through as he only seemed mildly troubled rather than haunted. But I hoped things would improve.

John Graham Hall was an impressive Shuisky, well in control, firm of voice and deeply untrustworthy. Hall's voice was strong and robust, not quite suggesting the oiliness which Robert Tear brought vocally to the role.

By the time of the scene outside St. Basil's Cathedral, we were resigned to the fact that the setting would not make any attempt to evoke the cathedral. The chorus continued to impress and Robert Murray stood out as a very pitiful (in the best sense) Simpleton.

By the closing council chamber scene it was apparent that Rose's Boris was one of the most beautifully sung accounts of the role that I have ever heard. Each phrase was carefully shaped. The only person to come close was Robert Lloyd when he first sang the role, but Lloyd's performance changed over the years as his delivery got closer to Chaliapin's bark.

Because Rose's delivery was totally unlike Chaliapin's bark does not mean it was wrong. In most ways it was a joy to hear the role so gloriously sung. Unfortunately Rose seemed unable to imbue his voice with the troubles that Boris feels. Rose's Boris never seemed more than mildly perturbed and in the final scene, never seemed ill. Boris should feel as if he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, his eyes are haunted from the first moment we see him. But Rose did not achieve this. Perhaps he needs to sacrifice some of the perfection of his performance.

Rose's Boris was a magnificent achievement, but very much a work in progress. As a result the ENO chorus emerged as one of the principal protagonists of the opera. Which made it regrettable that we lacked the Kromy Forest scene.

It is ironic that the very virtues of this production (strong supporting roles,strong chorus) and the weakness of the central character made me long for the longer version of the opera.

Edward Gardner and the orchestra played the score with a fine sweep. I hope that ENO allow Albery, Rose and Gardner to revisit this work and strengthen it, turning a promising performance into a powerful.

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