Heavy Boris

22 Mar

Boris Godunov is one of those operas that I can sort-of admire while rarely feeling that I’ve had a satisfactory evening watching it.  I tend to go feeling that I ought to like it and see it as a masterpiece, but never quite do.  The, rather good, performance of the Royal Opera’s new production which I saw on 21 March did nothing to change that view.  At best it’s an interesting failure.

The fashion today is to try to get as near as possible to Mussorgsky’s original intentions and, for this production, the ROH went for the original 1869 version, rejected by the St Petersburg management.  Frankly, I’m with that management.  As it stands, this is little more than an interesting draft of some episodes from Pushkin with little unifying them.

For opera houses, of course, it has the advantage of lacking a Polish Act, so it is cheaper, and you can turn it into a short evening140 minutes.  It also tempts directors to try to get it all through in one sitting.  We miss also quite a lot of rather attractive music to leaven what is otherwise a pretty dark, heavy evening.  There’s no over-arching idea or story and, while five of them concentrate, if indirectly, on Boris – the Pimen scene and the Inn scene feel out of place, irrelevant and deeply tedious.  And then there are the vocal lines, which to Russian ears may be expressive settings of the text, to non-Russian speakers sound repetitive and unimaginative.

Of course there are some great things: Boris’s monologues (though how much more grateful they are in the later version), the dialogue with Shuisky and the death scene.  And the orchestration is fabulous – Mussorgsky creates atmosphere wonderfully: it’s a skilful, intense score, atmospheric.  But it also feels long and ill-paced.  It’s all narration and very little action. More than two hours of this with no break felt like quite a trial.  Equally, it’s hard to see where you’d put the break and that, of itself, suggests that there’s something wrong with the piece.

Richard Jones’s production did his best with the piece.  There’s lots of good stuff in it – the set is mostly a black box but with an upper tier that is lighter, looking almost like the top of an icon or a church.  You can see Dmitri being murdered, Boris vacillating about the crown and as a place where people can watch.  You get the sense of treachery and intrigue.  The crowd is moved really well (so that you’d rather like the other scenes with them), the debate between the boyars, clear and political.  Mostly, the stage pictures are as strong as you expect, though the Inn scene feels vast, which surely it shouldn’t be.  And there’s very strong direction of the principals: he gets great acting performances out of them. The final picture of Boris dead and, on the upper level, Dmitri advancing on Fyodor with the boyars and Shuisky watching was excellent, struck me as spot-on.

And yet there are signs of repetition of the Jones tics – these will get to feel like laziness, if he’s not careful. In Macbeth, he used moving cardboard boxes to good effect.  Here, it was the child Dmitri’s spinning top moving across the stage.  We see the murder five times.  That’s too many. If this wasn’t, for me, one of Jones’s very finest pieces, however, it was still a good production that ought to be readily revivable – I wonder if he could expand it to cover the longer versions.

The cast was great and without a weak link.  Bryn Terfel is one of those singers who have the sheer size of personality and charisma to make Boris work.  He created a tortured, guilt-ridden, relatively sympathetic character.  Vocally, I  prefer a blacker, slightly richer sound – Christoff, Lloyd or Tomlinson – but you can’t argue against the sheer power of the voice and his ability to fine it down to soft pianissimo when he needs to.  He creates the anger, the pathos and the guilt of the man outstandingly.

Ain Anger was a very fine, dark, certain Pimen (even though my heart sank in the last scene when, just as it looked as though we were about to end, we were clearly going to have yet more narration); David Butt Philip made a really good Grigory – I think that his voice is really well suited to this sort of role and his acting was excellent.  John Graham Hall made a nicely subtle politician of a Shuisky – watching all the time and beautifully contrasted with Terfel.  And John Tomlinson was Varlaam – voice showing no sign of age and a beautifully acted, not quite over the top performance.

We had a boy as Fyodor and Ben Knight sang strongly and acted really well.  Rebecca du Pont Davies as the Hostess and Sarah Pring as the Nurse had even less to do than usual, but were fine.  Vlada Borovko mourned convincingly as Xenia.  The other roles were all really well done.

The chorus was on outstanding form.  The big crowd scenes were clear, passionate and completely committed.  It’s hard to ask for better.

Antonio Pappano conducted.  As you expect, this was clear, beautifully played Mussorgsky.  It sounded great and the orchestra played marvellously: he unleashed a huge volume of sound where necessary, but .refined it down for the intimate moments.  I still have memories of the sound that Abbado created in 1983 and the sheer visceral intensity that he brought to the score – a performance that I’ve always put alongside the Kleiber Otellos as among the great conducting performances I’ve heard.  Pappano didn’t quite match that, but this was as good as we have any right to expect.

So all the ingredients were there.  You can’t not admire the performance.  I just wish that Boris were a more satisfactory opera.

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