Sunday, 30 November 2008

Boris Godunov, English National Opera, 29 November 2008

London Coliseum

Priest – James Gower
Mityukha – Paul Napier-Burrows
Andrey Schelkalov – David Stephenson
Prince Vasily Shuisky – John Graham-Hall
Boris Godunov – Peter Rose
Simpleton – Robert Murray
Pimen – Brindley Sherratt
Grigory Otrepyev, later Dmitri the Pretender – Gregory Turay
Innkeeper – Yvonne Howard
Varlaam – Jonathan Veira
Missail – Anton Rich
Border guard – Charles Johnston
Xenia – Sophia Bevan
Fyodor – Anna Grevelius
Nurse – Deborah Davison
Boyar-in-attendance – Philip Daggett

Tim Albery (director)
Tobias Heheisel (designer)
Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Philippe Giraudeau (choreographer)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Edward Gardner (conductor)

‘Austerity’ seems to be the buzz word of the moment, latched onto by reactionary politicians who would have us return to the stifling societal conformity and bigotry of their beloved 1950s, and also, with more justification, by those who would press for a tiny reduction in the money being squandered upon the 2012 Olympic Games. As is well known, the arts are suffering greatly – and will come to suffer still more – in order that ‘state-of-the-art sporting facilities’ might be built and limousines provided for the leading lights of the supposedly amateur ‘Olympic movement’. Whether by accident, design, or – I fear – necessity, austerity appeared to be a guiding principle in the English National Opera’s Boris Godunov. In some senses, this is far from a bad thing. The sparseness of Tobias Hoheisel’s sets – I should probably employ the singular ‘set’ – and the generally minimalist bent of Tim Albery’s production lent an intensity consonant with the travails of Mother Russia lying at the heart of the work. This might have gone a little far when the Innkeeper was forced to wheel on her miniature inn in a little wagon, but even then it did no particular harm. The single chair for the scene with the boyars was more of a problem – ENO used to have a fetish for chairs, so must surely have a few lying around somewhere – in that the Tsar, most implausibly, had to stand, that the elderly Pimen might be seated. Updating to the last days of Imperial Russia worked well, emphasising the brutality of the state and the deadly consequences for the populace. Dostoevsky was almost a palpable presence.

‘Austerity’, or ‘economy’, was less welcome when it came to the choice of the 1869 ‘original’ version. Whatever arguments might be put in favour of it, none has ever convinced me, and this experience did no more than that of the Mariinsky’s relatively recent visit (with an horrendously unconvincing production) to Covent Garden. That it works well enough and we should still consider Boris to be a great opera, had Mussorgsky never revised it, is to me no argument at all for presenting it as here. In its ‘complete’ glory, Boris is, quite simply, the greatest of all Russian operas and is, to my mind, probably the greatest nineteenth-century opera not written by Beethoven or Wagner. To lose the Polish scenes of the third act is bad enough – as much for the loss of the scheming Jesuit, Rangoni, as for Marina – yet to lose the Kromy Forest scene, with the attendant tragedy for the Russian people, is more than a step too far. The issue of Rimskyfication is an entirely separate one – not that one would know it from the writings of some musical journalists – and it is of course quite right that we should generally hear Mussorgsky himself, even though Rimsky-Korsakov’s Coronation Scene adds something quite splendid, which I should love to hear in the theatre.

Anyway, 1869 was what we had. Edward Gardner steered a generally convincing path through the score, at least following a disturbingly disjointed, indeed barely phrased introduction to the first scene. He seemed more in his element with the crowd scenes, proving a little too ‘supportive’ to the singers and not quite enough of a leader. There was a pervasive melancholy lyricism to much of the orchestral writing, although more bite would not have gone amiss. (Listen to Claudio Abbado to hear how it might be done.) I liked, or rather was properly repelled by, the wheedling quality of the orchestra to match Shuisky’s manœuvrings. Moreover, there was real terror in the discussions of the people outside the cathedral, although, like so much else, a great deal was lost by the frankly inappropriate sound of them being conducted in English. Surtitles should surely by now have signed the death warrant of opera in translation. The bells – electronic, I assume – were simply atrocious, sounding more akin to someone banging together sheets of iron: further evidence of ‘austerity’ measures?*

Peter Rose did well enough in the title role. Boris’s descent into madness was convincingly portrayed. Yet ultimately Rose could not mask the unfortunate truth that he had been miscast. This role needs a deeper, more charismatic bass, from which it had certainly benefited last time around at the Coliseum, in the guise of John Tomlinson. John Graham-Hall presented a Shuisky of such insinuating malevolence that I could not help thinking of Peter Mandelson. Brindley Sherratt was an outstanding Pimen, his aged wisdom palpable in every phrase. Jonathan Veira shone in the wonderful role of Varlaam; he simply was the fraudulent mendicant friar. As Grigory, Gregory Turay convinced: one could well imagine him developing the charisma to rival the Tsar, and not only because this Boris so signally lacked that quality. Utopias may prove false but they may be preferable to more of the same.Yvonne Howard and Robert Murray also impressed. The royal children and nurse were little more than adequate. Nevertheless, there were some very strong individual performances – not inappropriate for an ‘austerity’ Boris, but not in themselves enough to provide an entirely satisfying performance.

[* I am now informed that the bells were real and acquired at considerable expense. The money could certainly have been better spent - or saved.]