Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Desert Island Delights at the RCM: Offenbach's Robinson Crusoe

Britannia waives the rules: The EU Brexit in quotes’. Such was the headline of a BBC News feature on 28th June 2016. And, nearly three years later, those who watch the runaway Brexit-train hurtle ever nearer to the edge of Dover’s white cliffs might be tempted by the thought of leaving this sceptred (sceptic?) isle, for a life overseas.

Akira Nishimura’s Asters: A Major New Japanese Opera

Opened as recently as 1997, the Opera House of the New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT) is one of the newest such venues among the world’s great capitals, but, with ten productions of opera a year, ranging from baroque to contemporary, this publicly-owned and run theatre seems determined to make an international impact.

The Outcast in Hamburg

It is a “a musicstallation-theater with video” that had its world premiere at the Mannheim Opera in 2012, revived just now in a new version by Vienna’s ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wein for one performance at the Vienna Konzerthaus and one performance in Hamburg’s magnificent Elbphilharmonie (above). Olga Neuwirth’s The Outcast and this rich city are imperfect bedfellows!

Monarchs corrupted and tormented: ETO’s Idomeneo and Macbeth at the Hackney Empire

Promises made to placate a foe in the face of imminent crisis are not always the most well-considered and have a way of coming back to bite one - as our current Prime Minister is finding to her cost.

Der Fliegende Holländer and
Tannhäuser in Dresden

To remind you that Wagner’s Dutchman had its premiere in Dresden’s Altes Hoftheater in 1843 and his Tannhauser premiered in this same theater in 1845 (not to forget that Rienzi premiered in this Saxon court theater in 1842).

WNO's The Magic Flute at the Birmingham Hippodrome

A perfect blue sky dotted with perfect white clouds. Identikit men in bowler hats clutching orange umbrellas. Floating cyclists. Ferocious crustaceans.

Puccini’s Messa di Gloria: Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra

This was an oddly fascinating concert - though, I’m afraid, for quite the wrong reasons (though this depends on your point of view). As a vehicle for the sound, and playing, of the London Symphony Orchestra it was a notable triumph - they were not so much luxurious - rather a hedonistic and decadent delight; but as a study into three composers, who wrote so convincingly for opera, and taken somewhat out of their comfort zone, it was not a resounding success.

WNO's Un ballo in maschera at Birmingham's Hippodrome

David Pountney and his design team - Raimund Bauer (sets), Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes), Fabrice Kebour (lighting) - have clearly ‘had a ball’ in mounting this Un ballo in maschera, the second part of WNO’s Verdi trilogy and which forms part of a spring season focusing on what Pountney describes as the “profound and mysterious issue of Monarchy”.

Super #Superflute in North Hollywood

Pacific Opera Project’s rollicking new take on The Magic Flute is as much endearing fun as a box full of puppies.

Leading Ladies: Barbara Strozzi and Amiche

I couldn’t help wondering; would a chamber concert of vocal music by female composers of the 17th century be able sustain our concentration for 90 minutes? Wouldn’t most of us be feeling more dutiful than exhilarated by the end?

George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill at Wigmore Hall

This week, the Wigmore Hall presents two concerts from George Benjamin and Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern, the first ‘at home’ on Wigmore Street, the second moving north to Camden’s Roundhouse. For the first, we heard Benjamin’s now classic first opera, Into the Little Hill, prefaced by three ensemble works by Cathy Milliken, Christian Mason, and, for the evening’s spot of ‘early music’, Luigi Dallapiccola.

Marianne Crebassa sings Berio and Ravel: Philharmonia Orchestra with Salonen

It was once said of Cathy Berberian, the muse for whom Luciano Berio wrote his Folk Songs, that her voice had such range she could sing the roles of both Tristan and Isolde. Much less flatteringly, was my music teacher’s description of her sound as akin to a “chisel being scraped over sandpaper”.

Rossini's Elizabeth I: English Touring Opera start their 2019 spring tour

What was it with Italian bel canto and the Elizabethan age? The era’s beautiful, doomed queens and swash-buckling courtiers seem to have held a strange fascination for nineteenth-century Italians.

Chameleonic new opera featuring Caruso in Amsterdam

Micha Hamel’s new opera, Caruso a Cuba, is constantly on the move. The chameleonic score takes on a myriad flavours, all with a strong sense of mood or place.

Ernst Krenek: Karl V, Bayerisches Staatsoper

Ernst Krenek’s Karl V op 73 at the Bayerisches Staatsoper, with Bo Skovhus, conducted by Erik Nielsen, in a performance that reveals the genius of Krenek’s masterpiece. Contemporary with Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, Berg’s Lulu, and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, Krenek’s Karl V is a metaphysical drama, exploring psychological territory with the possibilities opened by new musical form.

A Sparkling Merry Widow at ENO

A small, formerly great, kingdom, is on the verge of bankruptcy and desperate to prevent its ‘assets’ from slipping into foreign hands. Sexual and political intrigues are bluntly exposed. The princes and patriarchs are under threat from both the ‘paupers’ and the ‘princesses’, and the two dangers merge in the glamorous figure of the irresistibly wealthy Pontevedrin beauty, Hanna Glawari, a working-class girl who’s married up and made good.

Mozart: Così fan tutte - Royal Opera House

Così fan tutte is, primarily, an ensemble opera and it sinks or swims on the strength of its sextet of singers - and this performance very much swam. In a sense, this is just as well because Jan Phillip Gloger’s staging (revived here by Julia Burbach) is in turns messy, chaotic and often confusing. The tragedy of this Così is that it’s high art clashing with Broadway; a theatre within an opera and a deceit wrapped in a conundrum.

Gavin Higgins' The Monstrous Child: an ROH world premiere

The Royal Opera House’s choice of work for the first new production in the splendidly redesigned Linbury Theatre - not unreasonably, it seems to have lost ‘Studio’ from its name - is, perhaps, a declaration of intent; it may certainly be received as such. Not only is it a new work; it is billed specifically as ‘our first opera for teenage audiences’.

Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago

From the first moments of the recent revival of Sir David McVicar’s production of Elektra by Richard Strauss at Lyric Opera of Chicago the audience is caught in the grip of a rich music-drama, the intensity of which is not resolved, appropriately, until the final, symmetrical chords.

Expressive Monteverdi from Les Talens Lyriques at Wigmore Hall

This was an engaging concert of madrigals and dramatic pieces from (largely) Claudio Monteverdi’s Venetian years, a time during which his quest to find the ‘natural way of imitation’ - musical embodiment of textual form, meaning and affect - took the form not primarily of solo declamation but of varied vocal ensembles of two or more voices with rich instrumental accompaniments.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Bryn Terfel as Boris Godunov [Photo by Catherine Ashmore]
16 Mar 2016

Boris Godunov, Covent Garden

‘And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ John Donne’s metaphysical meditation might have made a fitting sub-title for Richard Jones’s new production of Musorgky’s Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera House — the first performance in the house of the original 1869 score.

Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera House

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Bryn Terfel as Boris Godunov [Photo by Catherine Ashmore]

 

Bells loom large in Miriam Buether’s well-considered design which, paradoxically, combines complexity and clarity. The grey granite blocks of the cathedral-like walls which frame the stage — suggesting both Public Square and monastery interior — are embossed with replications of the Tsar Bell of the Kremlin. Three bells — dark projections — hang in the belfry about Pimen’s cell in the Chudov Monastery. And, we hear the carillons too, when the great bells clang in joyful cacophony in herald of Boris’s coronation, a clarion riot that foreshadows the more sombre knelling that will later echo throughout Russia.

Buether’s split-level set is plain and dark which makes the intermittent splashes of colour all the more melodramatic. Lit with a garish yellow glow, an arched aperture hangs above a bare blank stage and serves as both corridor of power and assassin’s alley. It is here that Jones sites his central motif, establishing the opera as an astute psychological study in responsibility and remorse. Before a note is heard we witness a mime in which three hooded cut-throats creep up upon the unsuspecting Dmitri — a carefree youth, with a shock of red hair, who nonchalantly plays with his spinning top — and slash his throat, in ghastly slow motion, while a troubled-looking Boris hunches in the Novodevichy Monastery below.

Throughout the production, Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting design conjures skulking shadows; here, they blur deceptively with the black-clad figures, suggesting an even more numerous murderous posse. This dreadful dumb-show is repeatedly re-enacted — a looping re-play in Boris’s subconscious. Later, the distressed Tsar grabs his son Fyodor’s own whirligig and smashes it to the ground, but the pantomime — a ceaseless, tormenting merry-go-round of sin and retribution — cannot be so easily erased.

The ensemble is superb, but naturally the spotlight falls sharpest — both figuratively and literally, for Boris is frequently exposed to a penetrating bright glare which illuminates both his majesty and vulnerability — on Bryn Terfel, singing the role of the guilt-plagued Tsar for the first time. As a bass-baritone, Terfel may not be able to summon the sonorous darkness of a basso profundo — though his bass is by no means lacking in resonance — but the role does serve as a showcase for his dramatic and vocal prowess; and, he is able to negotiate the higher lying passages with flexibility and smoothness, conveying extreme emotions through both legato lyricism and soft-breathed fragmentation. His hallucinatory monologues are discomfortingly compelling.

Terfel’s Boris is no histrionic monster. And if, initially, he seems to hold something in reserve emotionally, this later seems to be part of a carefully judged slow-release of growing torment, which builds unstoppably to tragic confrontation and catharsis. Terfel finds the man beneath the stateliness; this is a father whose love for his children is tactile, intense and unwavering. He trades the simple attire of a boyar for the glittering glamour of his creme and gold coronation robes, but at the close Boris is a dishevelled, pitiful figure — body and mind in disarray: grey-haired, fur-coated, bare-footed, staggering and swaying like a wild Old Testament prophet. The contrast between Terfel’s physical stature and psychological vulnerability is deeply poignant.

Terfel’s prowess is matched by several other stand-out performances. As Pimen, the Estonian bass Ain Anger delivers a narration of his country’s misdemeanours and miracles which burns with intensity, as he stands before a story-board chronicle of Russian history upon which portraits of three former Tsars are followed by an unfinished likeness of the red-haired Dmitri.

In this monastery cell the Pretender’s career as the False Dmitry is launched, and David Philip Butt projects Grigory’s lofty romanticism with strong projection, lending the anti-hero a Byronic dimension. John Graham-Hall is superb as a sinister, sycophantic Shuisky, singing with sly sleekness; Kostas Smoriginas makes fine use of his dark, weighty bass, and crafts an appealing legato line, when announcing Boris’s refusal to become Tsar and foretelling Russia’s doom.

Contrast is offered by the exaggerated comedy of the scene at the Lithuanian border, where Rebecca de Pont Davies’ blowsy Innkeeper welcomes the two monks, Varlaam (John Tomlinson — a former Boris in this house — who blew the roof off, obviously enjoying the grotesquery) and his drinking companion Missail (Harry Nicoll). And, in the Tsar’s apartments — where a map marks Russia’s territories in red, as if the land is bathed in blood — sweet-toned relief is offered by Xenia (Vlada Borovko), who laments the death of her fiancé, and her Nurse (Sarah Pring), who tries to console her.

Andrew Tortise is very effective as the blessed Simpleton, sporting a tin hat reminiscent of the hoods of the assassins and border guards, foretelling disasters and defaming Boris. The Holy Fool’s obsessive hand-washing gestures during Boris’s demand for prayer send an ominous message. The role of Fyodor is sung by Ben Knight, his bright, clean soprano conveying a welcome freshness and innocence.

Antonio Pappano led the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in an impassioned and rich reading of the score, relishing its idiosyncrasies, and creating — through the powerful pizzicato tread of the cellos and bass - an unrelenting march towards exposure and death.

But, the quieter sequences were just as telling as the grandiose climaxes — particularly, the episodes with plangent, yearning woodwind accompaniment — and were notable for the way in which subtle tensions and anxieties were illuminated. At the emotional apexes, though, Pappano held nothing back, whipping the Orchestra and Chorus to magnificent peaks of sound. In the stunning opening scenes, the impact of the Chorus’s vocal power was matched by the vibrant primary colours of their celebratory dress, as they lined up like rows of matryoshka dolls. When, in Scene 6, they gathered outside St Basil’s Cathedral to denounce the Pretender their passive submission to deprivation and despair was heart-breakingly signalled by the beautiful lyricism of their folk-song begging the Tsar to save them.

In 1871 the Imperial Theatres directorate rejected Musorgsky’s score, on the principal charge that it contained no role for prima donna. Today, one can imagine that the original version’s compressed intensity — and its smaller cast and less lavish sets — appeal to opera companies, particularly in these financially austere times.

Jones and Pappano fashion a captivating, coherent narrative from Musorgsky’s loosely connected episodes — an uninterrupted two hours of compelling music-drama. Though historians have exonerated Boris of guilt in the death of the Tsarevich, the myth of a man driven by ambition to commit murder in the pursuit of power, a crime that returns to haunt him to madness and the grave, is — as Shakespeare knew — compelling. As we witness Terfel’s Boris lose his hold first on his country and then on his life, there can surely be little doubt that Musorgsky’s opera is a masterpiece. And, Jones’s final motif, as Grigory enters the raised corridor, his silver knife-blade gleaming menacingly in an ominous mirror-image of the opening assassination, is a masterstroke.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

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, Yurodivy (Holy Fool) —Andrew Tortise, Xenia —Vlada Borovko, 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, Conductor —Antonio Pappano, Set designer —Miriam Buether, Costume designer —Nicky Gillibrand, Lighting designer —Mimi Jordan Sherin, Movement director — Ben Wright, Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. Monday 14th March 2016.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):