Wednesday 16 March 2016

Boris Godunov, Royal Opera, 14 March 2016

Royal Opera House

Boris Godunov – Bryn Terfel
Andrey Schchelkalov – Kostas Smoriginas
Nikitch – Jeremy White
Mityukha – Adrian Clarke
Prince Vasily Ivanovich Shuisky – John Graham-Hall
Pimen – Ain Anger
Grigory Otrepiev – David Butt Philip
Hostess of the Inn – Rebecca de Pont Davies
Varlaam – John Tomlinson
Missail – Harry Nicoll
Frontier Guard – James Platt
Xenia – Vlada Borovko
Xenia’s Nurse – Sarah Pring
Fyodor – Ben Knight
Boyar – Nicholas Sales
Holy Fool – Andrew Tortise

Richard Jones (director)
Miriam Buethner (set designs)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting)
Ben Wright (movement)
Elaine Kidd (associate director)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

I really only have one grumble, so I shall get it out of the way first. Why the original, 1869 version of Boris Godunov? Yes, it was a Royal Opera, although not a Royal Opera House, first? Yes, it has its particular fascinations; one might even argue it more radical or at the very least still less beholden to operatic convention than Mussorgsky’s revised version, first performed long before the original was exhumed. Yes, there is the very real advantage in the theatre of not having the action broken by an interval. But does anyone seriously think we are better off without the Polish act, without Marina? Does anyone seriously think that Mussorgsky’s sometimes drastic reworking of Pushkin is not more successful operatically (however we understand the term)? Does anyone seriously think the grander scale of the opera as a whole and the (still) greater opposition between tsar and people are not more or less unambiguously to the dramatic good? For seasoned opera-goers, one might argue that that is all less of a problem; we shall know the revision anyway. We might even know the Rimsky-Korsakov reorchestration. Indeed, we do, although I have yet, alas, to hear a performance of Rimskyfied Boris, and should like the opportunity to do so before I die. That said, I should hesitate before staging either 1869 or Rimsky in this country, at least, given that performances of any version have been bizarrely infrequent. I cannot imagine anyone would dispute the standing of the work as the greatest of all Russian operas. Perhaps it seemed less so on account of the version to the first-night audience; I cannot be sure. At any rate, I was surprised by the muted reception: quite undeserved. Maybe these were just people who thought they were in for Russian Donizetti.

If the 1869 version will always seem more akin to a fascinating draft to me, what a draft it is! This was a strong performance all around. Antonio Pappano sounded far more at home here than he ever has in German repertory. There were some oddities, not least the over-emphatic phrasing of the very opening bars. Even that, though, served to underline its Janáček-like vocal prophecy. More concerning, at times, was a tendency towards smoothing away some of Mussorgsky’s sparest, uncompromising writing, rather at odds with the version but, more importantly, occasionally suggesting a kinship with more conventional, even Italianate, operatic practice which, to my ears at least, should not be there. (Whatever Richard Taruskin might claim, I really do not hear a rapprochement with Verdi in the revised version.) That said, however, there was splendid playing from the orchestra, on as fine form as I have heard in some time. Pappano, moreover, should surely take some, at least, of the credit for the force with which particular musical moments stood out: not like a sore thumb, but with an underlining of a telling shift, harmonically, timbrally, or both. Pacing was sure, too: perhaps still more important in this succession of scenes, whose own formal radicalism – sorry to keep using that word, but it seems so apt in this case! – was enabled thereby truly to make its mark.

Bryn Terfel gave one of the finest performances I have seen from him. Truly, he embodied the role; and, in an opera so concerned with succession, it was truly unnerving to witness him grasp John Tomlinson’s mantle, as the latter gave an inimitable performance in the role of Varlaam. Not that Terfel sounded remotely like Tomlinson, of course; if one were expecting, and insisting upon, a ‘traditional’, deep, ‘Russian’, performance, one would doubtless have been disappointed. There is no more reason, though, to insist upon one correct way to perform Mussorgsky than there is with Elgar. Terfel’s care with the text – musical, as well as verbal – was striking; so was its visual incarnation. I had no doubt that this was Boris. As for Tomlinson, his larger-than-life assumption of Varlaam was spot on; the extraordinary double act, spoons and all, with Harry Nicoll’s Missail proved a joy, its grim humour well-nigh Shakespearean. Let us hope we shall one day see Tomlinson’s Lear.

David Butt Philip’s intelligent portrayal of the growth of a false Dmitri had one, rightly, both sympathise – why not have a go, in such a world? – with and suspect Grigory. Vocally as well as dramatically, this was a fine performance, which had one all the more regret the loss of the Polish Act. Ain Anger’s Pimen was something no one present is likely to forget, a world-weary yet canny chronicler more in control (perhaps!) than any other of these tormented – and tormenting – characters. This was, surprisingly, his Royal Opera debut; it will surely not be long before we see him at Covent Garden again. Ben Knight gave an astonishingly mature performance as Fyodor; this was the real thing, no doubt. The extraordinary versatility of John Graham-Hall took another turn with his Shuisky: wheedling, yes, but ultimately a sad figure, a more rounded assumption than one generally sees (and hears). Schchelkalov assumed greater, more chilling stature in Kostas Smoriginas’s performance than I can recall. Andrew Tortise’s Fool was, again, the Shakespearean thing; this talented singer deserves greater exposure on our opera stages. Were I to continue, and perhaps I ought to, I should simply be listing the cast and saying ‘well done!’ to each of them, for there was no weak link; there was, indeed, an abundance of fine character-singing and acting from all concerned.

Choral singing was excellent, as were Richard Jones’s direction of the chorus and Ben Wright’s movement direction. Here, although there are of course losses with respect to the version, there is arguably considerable gain too. The truly extraordinary prose recitative of the Coronation Scene shocked as it should. In 1869, and indeed in 2016, we stood as distant from Rimskian Technicolor and, so it seemed, not so far from a mix of Monteverdi with Schoenberg – in Russian. It is here, ironically, that one is probably better off either with the original or with Rimsky. Renato Balsadonna will be leaving a chorus in very good shape for his successor, William Spaulding. (As any operagoer knows, Spaulding’s work at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, augurs extremely well for London.)

Jones’s production is honest, straightforward, direct, with some of the tell-tale designs we expect, but nothing irritating. The upper, silent level of action in which assassins meet – a disturbingly Orientalist image here, I am afraid, although I doubt it was intended that way, nor is it necessarily intrinsically so – plotters scheme, and, above all, a child meets his cruel death is the realm of memory. We see as well as hear it haunt Boris; we sympathise, as we should, although, as with his would-be usurper, we do not only sympathise. Whether what we see be ‘true’ or no, we cannot know. The more disturbing question, or rather the implicit answer to that question, is: who cares?  Such is a crucial question in the work, and it is vividly, almost ritualistically instantiated here. Otherwise, below, a story is clearly and indeed colourfully told; it is difficult to imagine even the most ‘traditionalist’ of operagoers having any quarrel with Jones’s staging or – and, sadly, this is what such operagoers exclusively seem to mean by ‘productions’ – with the designs by Miriam Buethner and Nicky Gillibrand, all well thought out and finely executed.

I cannot help but wish that the production were a little more daring in its political terms of reference. If ever an opera cried out for a little contemporary or near-contemporary signposting, it is surely Boris. Is there a Russian regime to which the work could not be updated? Gorbachev’s might be trickier than most, although even then, Boris the reformer might intriguingly come into play. By the same token, however, we are free to draw our own comparisons, and anyone with half a brain cell will do so. In some ways, it is not unwelcome to have a construction – and Jones is too clever to approach the opera unmediated, whatever first impressions might suggest – of old Muscovy placed before us; if some silly souls take that as ‘fact’ or, God forbid, as ‘beautiful’, then that ultimately is their problem. At any rate, the evening offered a convincing, powerful musico-dramatic whole.
The performance on 21 March will be broadcast live to cinemas worldwide.