Boris Godunov

Modest Petrovich Musorgsky
Royal Opera
Royal Opera House

Bryn Terfel (Boris) in Boris Godunov Credit: Clive Barda
Chorus in Boris Godunov Credit: Clive Barda
Matthew Rose (Pimen) in Boris Godunov Credit: Clive Barda

The Russian opera repertoire represents the grandest of Grand Opera and Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov stands at the pinnacle of the genre. In its more familiar form, it can run to around four hours but it has become increasingly popular in recent years to present the work in its original 1869 version, which whips along at a pacy 130 minutes without intervals. This is what the Royal Opera gives us in the first revival of Richard Jones’s striking production, first seen at Covent Garden three years ago.

The performance is even tighter than that first outing in 2016, with a wonderfully energetic account of this great score by conductor Marc Albrecht and another opportunity to see one of the world’s finest actor-singers, Bryn Terfel, in a riveting and haunting interpretation of the title role.

Jones directs with his usual flair and precision, although his hallmark stylisation lends itself less well to Boris Godunov than it did to his earlier production of Shostakovich’s more domestic Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (another Russian masterpiece) at the same venue. Boris Godunov is like Verdi’s Aida, in that passages of great theatricality and spectacle sit alongside intimate scenes between just two characters. It’s the soul-searching inner life of the great tyrant in his most private moments that hit hardest in this opera.

Jones portrays the obsession of Tsar Boris’s guilt-ridden conscience with an oft-repeated dumbshow of the killing that paralyses him from the beginning of his reign, his coronation a dazzle of colour reminiscent of traditional iconography, through to his monochrome haunted final day.

This slice of Russian history of the 16th century, based on Pushkin’s drama, tells of Boris Godunov’s grasping of power following the death of Ivan the Terrible, by allegedly removing the seven-year-old heir Tsarevich Dmitry with violence and falteringly accepting the throne in a splendid coronation. A young novice Grigory Otrepiev learns of the story from his aged mentor Pimen and believes himself to be the murdered child, and so pursues the doomed Tsar like an avenging fury. This taut early version of the opera consists of just seven short tableaux, cutting out large swathes of material from the later editions, but doesn’t dispense with the light relief provided by the Lithuanian border scene where Grigory tries to pass two drunk monks off as the traitors.

Boris hardly appears in the first half of the opera but really comes into his own in the second half, culminating in one of the most chilling death scenes in all opera, which Terfel, at the height of his powers, brings off magnificently. He’s a mighty grey-maned wounded bear of a man, eaten up with fear and remorse. He’s matched by another British bass in the role of the holy man Pimen, Matthew Rose, who has matured as an artist in recent years and is every inch the pretender to Terfel’s crown; perhaps we’ll even see him as Boris in future revivals of the production.

In this version, there are very few opportunities for female voices but the predominance of dark deep tones (bass John Tomlinson also features prominently as the charlatan monk Varlaam in the border scene) is leavened by the bright, ringing tenor of David Butt Philip as Grigory and Roger Honeywell’s oily courtier Prince Shuisky. The Royal Opera chorus are on great form all evening.

The designs—sets by Miriam Buether and costumes by Nicky Gillibrand—contrast the gloom of the downtrodden peasantry with bright, often golden, backgrounds against which the two-dimensional groupings stand out like the figures in ancient icons.

Reviewer: Simon Thomas

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