Boris Godunov

Modest Mussorgsky
Royal Opera House
Royal Opera House

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Bryn Terfel (Boris) Credit: Royal Opera House
The boyars, the coronation of Boris above Credit: ROH © Catherine Ashmore
Ain Anger (Pimen) and David Butt Philip (Grigory) Credit: ROH © Catherine Ashmore
Harry Nicoll (Missail), John Tomlinson (Varlaam) and James Platt (guard) Credit: Royal Opera House
Ain Anger (Pimen) and Bryn Terfel (Boris) Credit: Royal Opera House

Never before had Bryn Terfel sung a role in Russian, let alone tackle the greatest in that country’s great history of opera. Yet this magnificent performance in 2016, which he repeated three years later, ranks for me as the very best available on DVD or to stream, beating even that of the great Rene Papp at the Met in 2021.

Like that American production, the Covent Garden version, directed by Richard Jones, uses Mussorgsky’s one-act, seven-scene original, dispensing with the love scenes between the false Dmitri and Marina, and thus with the only substantial female role in the opera.

Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes are vaguely 19th-century with a set by Miriam Buether that places the interior of a golden dome for the ruling class above the stage. I have seen many more impressive and lavish productions, but this has effective moments, such as Boris's first entry among the people—Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting design bleaching his uncertain features as if he had seen a ghost.

He has. In the background, the murder at Boris’s behest of the seven-year-old tsarevich is repeatedly re-enacted while the boy plays with a spinning top. At one point, the passage of a spinning top across the stage on its own is enough to rekindle Godunov’s mental terrors. (The spinning top metaphor was taken up again in that Met production.)

There could be a natural break at the end of the tavern scene, after which Terfel comes into his own. Dressed in a shabby coat that contrasts with to the golden robes assumed for his coronation seven years before, he gives a mesmerising performance, half-crazed with resentment, pained with tenderness for the son and daughter he will leave behind.

His 25-minute outpouring is a tour-de-force, a compelling and convincing portrait of a man in torment, during which two moments may serve as examples. When he sings "Umiraju", "I am dying", it is as if this has come as a surprise realisation, not as so often as a public declaration; and the last notes of his farewell to son Fyodor are sung in an exquisite pianissimo to break the heart.

Lurking on the sidelines is Shuisky, played with sinister reserve by John Graham-Hall, who by chance stars as Britten’s Albert Herring in a Glyndebourne DVD released on the same day as this Boris. Could there be two more different roles? What versatile artists we have.

David Butt Philip is in fine voice as Grigory / Dmitri, as is John Tomlinson as a bibulous Varlaam. Ain Anger exerts quiet authority in the role of Pimen, a part he continued to play at the Met and La Scala.

The chorus, which gives continuity to the whole work, is well disciplined and Antony Pappano gives dramatic effect to the rough economy of Mussorgsky’s original score, punctuated by tense pauses. The DVD also features a short introduction to the work by the ever-informative Pappano and Terfel.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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