The production of Boris Godunov now playing at the Coliseum has had mixed reviews, largely because of the performance of Peter Rose as the tormented Tsar. I usually don’t find myself agreeing very much with what music critics say and I had been looking forward to English National Opera’s take on Mussorgsky‘s opera for some time. My trip to London this weekend gave me an excuse to see it for myself and form my own opinion.
The opera is based on a play by Pushkin which tells a story based on the historical figure who ruled Russian from 1598 until 1605. In the play, Boris Godunov only becomes Tsar after murdering the son Dmitriy of the previous Tsar, Ivan IV (“the terrible”) and is plagued with ghostly visions of the dead boy. His guilt drives him into madness and eventually to death, although in this production of the opera the audience doesn’t see how he dies.
In Tim Albery’s staging, the action is shifted forwards in time to pre-revolutionary Russia, with the costumes and designed hinting a time round about 1900. The production uses Mussorgsky’s original version of the opera which is not divided into acts, but spread across seven scenes (lasting about two hours and fifteen minutes) which are performed without an interval. The limitations of the minimalistic set are more than made up for by wonderful use of lighting at one point bathes the stage in gold and at another turns it into a chill Moscow streetscape.
The update of the period allows Albery to give this production a dimension that is entirely new. The ENO chorus deliberately conjures up the idea that revolution might be imminent. At several points the chorus appear in huge numbers on stage to be held at bay by only a few soldiers with rifles. This is a very effective device, especially since the chorus is in such good voice. The passion and attack of the mob is unleashed only sparingly but when it is it is very effective in providing a vocal backdrop to the developing plot.
Mussorgky’s music for Boris Godunov is romantic, richly textured, even lush in places and full of wonderful melodies. As you can imagine from the storyline it’s also rather dark and sombre, much of it in the basso profundo region. That also goes for the singers: there is no conventional tenor role, though basses and baritones proliferate among the cast.
The one thing the music doesn’t have is a great deal of dramatic contrast, which I think must be why it appears to be difficult for the principals to bring their characters fully to life. It’s almost as if the opulence of the score holds them back. The other difficulty is that there are so many characters with not much time for the audience to get to know their personalities. Although they all sang well, I still felt they were strangers at the end. The one really outstanding performance in there was Brindley Sherratt (as the “chronicler” an old hermit called Pimen) who gave his character real depth and pathos.
And as for Boris himself? Was Boris good enough? I think Peter Rose actually sang very well and the limitations of his acting have been overemphasized by the critics. There aren’t that many opera singers who can act well, and he is certainly far from the worst I’ve seen. His voice is relatively light for a bass and he didn’t have the bottomless range that is really needed to get across the angst of the remorseful murderer. In the scenes with Pimen (another bass) he generally suffered by comparison with his opposite number’s much richer sounds at the low end of the register.
So, not for the first time, I am glad I ignored the critics and went ahead and bought my tickets for this. As it turned out I was sitting quite close to John Nettles (who plays Tom Barnaby in Midsomer Murders) and Jane Wymark (who plays his wife, Joyce, in the same series). I half-expected there to be a murder during the performance.