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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.

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