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<em>Boris Godunov</em>, ROH at the Proms
18 Jul 2016

Prom 2: Boris Godunov, ROH

Bryn Terfel is making a habit of performing Russian patriarchs at the Proms.

Boris Godunov, ROH at the Proms

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Bryn Terfel as Boris Godunov

Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou


Last year saw him at the helm of Grange Park Opera’s performance of Fiddler on the Roof, as the deep-thinking Russian dairyman, Tevye, whose Jewish cultural traditions are threatened by both his daughters’ nuptial plans and the Tsar’s political strategy to expel the Jews from the Anatevka shtetl (review). This year he returned as Boris Godunov, the guilt-racked Tsar plagued by his conscience, superstition and insecurities, driven to despair and death by deceit and doubt.

The Royal Opera House de-camped to the west side of town for this concert performance of Richard Jones’ production of Musorgsky’s opera, seen at Covent Garden in March (review), conducted by Antonio Pappano. There was no attempt to ‘semi-stage’ the work, other than a few token gestures. For example, the newly crowned Boris made his first appearance in the organ console, behind and above his adulating people - a magnificent sight in ceremonial crème and gold, but less successful vocally as Terfel struggled to project from this distant placement. But, the decision to avoid too much stage business was probably a sensible one, especially given the 1869 version performed here focuses less on the conflict between Boris and his people than on the tortures within his own mind. With the protagonists delivering their long orations and narratives from the front of the stage, an intense immediacy was created as they seemed to be speaking directly to the Prommers before them, overcoming the Albert Hall’s capacious dimensions.

Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes and make-up were retained but Jones’ and Miriam Buether’s designs were largely dispensed with, and there were both gains and losses from the omission of the visual symbolism and the choreographic dimension - with the gains perhaps in the ascendant.

On the down side, the involvement of the Chorus in the dramatic denouement was lessened. This was in no way a consequence of the quality of the choral singing, which was superlative. The Royal Albert Hall has witnessed countless choral apotheoses over the years, but the power and passion of the Russian populace’s acclamation of their new Tsar, as Boris emerges from the Cathedral of the Assumption in the opening scene, must have equalled the best of them. Although they were seated behind the ROH Orchestra, quite distant from the action, it was evident that each individual member of the Chorus was deeply alert to the musico-dramatic arguments being presented by the various soloists.

However, the Chorus’s engagement with the drama was inevitably somewhat ‘at a remove’, and this was especially noticeable in the fourth Act where unrest grows among the people who gather in the square before the Cathedral of St Basil the Blessed, and in desperation and hunger beg the shocked Tsar to give them bread. The result was that Boris seemed less concerned about the popular dissent that his past crime may have caused and more obsessed with his inner struggles and suspicions; while this sharpened the psychological portrait of the Tsar, the tender lyricism of the people’s folk-song appeal for alms was less poignant.

The iconic replication of the Tsar Bell of the Kremlin had been a powerful emblem in Buether’s designs; here the duplications in embossed granite and the dark projections which hung in the belfry about Pimen’s cell in the Chudov Monastery were reduced to an ultramarine frieze behind the performers. The carillons which clang in joyful cacophony during the Coronation Scene resounded from the RAH Gallery, but they were both too detached from the drama - Prommers were distracted from the stage as they swivelled to see where the clarion was coming from - and rather too loud.

There were a couple of places where I wondered whether projections might have been used to substitute for elements of Buether’s design that had had great impact at Covent Garden. For example, the story-board chronicle of Russian history which is a back-drop for Pimen’s narration - and upon which portraits of three former Tsars are followed by an unfinished likeness of the red-haired, murdered Dmitri - and the huge map which dominated the Tsar’s apartments upon which the Russian territories were signalled red, as if the land is bathed in blood, might have been recreated in this way. But, on the plus side, out went the repetitive intrusion of the mimed murder of Dmitri and the profusion of spinning tops.

So much depends upon the Tsar’s grandeur and guilt, and although Bryn Terfel, as I remarked in March ‘may not be able to summon the sonorous darkness of a basso profundo’, he once again excelled and showed what a fine singing-actor he is. This time round his Tsar was even more isolated, trapped within the claustrophobic torment of his own mind and drawn only momentarily from his anguish by the presence of his children Fyodor (a sweet-toned Ben Knight) and Xenia (Vlada Borovko).

If the Tsar’s psychological loneliness lessened the dramatic weight of these familial scene, then it deepened our understanding of Boris’s despair and decline. Left alone in the Tsar’s apartments, Terfel’s desperate, hallucinatory reflections on his five-year reign - he is blamed for everything, even the death of Xenia’s fiancé and the poisoning of his own sister - revealed a lack of proportion and reason which will push him into an inexorable physical and mental deterioration.

And in the final scenes this deterioration was laid bare: grey, dishevelled and lurching wildly, this was a man on a precipice. Terfel used every aspect of his voice to growl with fury at the Simpleton, and bellow at the duplicitous Shuisky, whom he both distrusts and fears, while the soft articulation of the higher-lying passages conveyed the Tsar’s affection for his son, and his psychological fragility.

Terfel was joined by an outstanding cast, many of whom were reprising their roles. Estonian bass Ain Anger was once again marvellous as Pimen. He delivered his account of his country’s past ills and wonders with such magisterial authority that one longed to hear what intensity he might bring to the role of Boris.

David Philip Butt conveyed Grigory’s haughty and somewhat gauche idealism effectively, while John Graham-Hall injected his smooth tenor with a sinister nuance as the obsequious but self-serving Shuisky, though the lack of staging meant that dramatically his role had less clear direction and he often seemed to be just hanging around in the side-lines.

The smaller roles were just as strongly performed. Jeremy White’s Police Officer hurled out brusque insults to the cowering populace; Kostas Smoriginas sang Andrei Shchelkalov’s announcement to the people that Boris has refused to become Tsar with a noble, legato line.

John Tomlinson’s grotesque comic turn as Varlaam had been one of the highlights of the Covent Garden performances, but he was absent here and the scene at the Lithuanian border was weakened by the lack of visual context and contrast. Rebecca de Pont Davies’ was a blowsy gregarious Innkeeper, though, and the two wandering monks, Varlaam (Andrii Goniukov) and his drinking buddy Missail (Harry Nicoll) added a dash of japery, including a deft percussive contribution on the musical spoons.

Even though the Simpleton was denied the opportunity to play directly to the populace, Andrew Tortise was again excellent as he foretold of forthcoming disaster and defamed Boris before a crowd of mischievous urchins.

I enjoyed the opportunity, too, to see Antonio Pappano guide the Orchestra of the Royal Opera, rather than simply hear the results. Peering into the ROH pit I’ve sometimes wondered how the baton-less Pappano’s hyperactive ‘hand-pumping’ and vigorous arm-swinging is interpreted by the players, but now it makes perfect sense. Pappano is like an electricity generator, ceaselessly pumping out energy which surges through each and every performer. I think that some of the orchestral subtleties were lost in the vastness of the RAH, but the crafting of the over-arching tensions was brilliant and the climaxes were by turn grandiose and suffused with anxiety.

This was a captivating performance: two hours of compelling narrative in which magnificent musical peaks communicated the sheer psychological force of Boris Godunov’s inner conflicts. Witnessing his death, we truly understood his tragedy.

Claire Seymour

Musorgsky: Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov - Bryn Terfel, Prince Shuisky - John Graham-Hall, Andrey Shchelkalov - Kostas Smoriginas, Grigory (Pretender Dmitri) - David Butt Philip, Pimen - Ain Anger, Varlaam - Andrii Goniukov, Missail - Harry Nicoll, Yurodivy (Simpleton) - Andrew Tortise, Xenia - Vlada Borovko, Xenia’s Nurse - Clarissa Meek, Hostess of the Inn - Rebecca de Pont Davies, Mityukha - Adrian Clarke, Border Guard - James Platt, Nikitich - Jeremy White, Fyodor - Ben Knight, Boyar - Nicholas Sales; conductor - Antonio Pappano, Royal Opera Chorus (chorus-master - Renato Balsadonna), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Albert Hall, London; Saturday 16th July 2016.

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