Boris Godunov

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.

6 Responses to “Boris Godunov”

  1. […] In the Dark A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « Boris Godunov […]

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Glad you enjoyed it Peter. Don’t you think it goes on a bit?!

  3. Not really, but I think it’s a bit of a problem that there’s no interval, though since there aren’t any “acts” in the usual sense it would be difficult to put in this version without disrupting it. Mussorgksky’s revised version (the one that is usually performed, I think) has another two scenes in it and that would definitely be too much at one sitting.

    Russian music generally takes its time, though, doesn’t it? Shostakovich is a big favourite, but his symphonies don’t exactly race ahead.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Oh yes they do! Shostakovich 7 is very ‘boppy,’ and the second movement of his 10th symphony, portraying Stalin (although Shostakovich couldn’t say so at the time), is the opposite of sedate… he is my favourite 20th century composer. But Boris Godunov bored me to tears in the Sydney Opera House some 20 years ago. After nearly 5 hours I remember a bell tolling and someone lamenting “pity the poor Russian people” and thinking “and not only them”… This might indeed have been the full version.


  5. telescoper Says:

    Maybe it only seemed like 5 hours! The running time for the version I saw was only 2hrs 15 minutes. I think the longer version is in 3 acts so with two intervals it might be nearly as long. But in the wrong hands any piece of music or opera can drag unbearably.

    It reminds me of the famous review of Wagner:

    “Parsifal is an opera by Wagner which starts at half past five. Three hours later you look at your watch and it’s quarter to six.”

    The Leningrad is one of my favourite symphonies of all: four movements run around 1 hour 15 minutes, but don’t drag as long as the conductor doesn’t keeps a sense of momentum. Not all do.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    Yes Parsifal does go on a bit. I’m glad I never saw it conducted by Reginald Goodall, who could add an hour to the usual running time – people came out of his Wagner performances to find the London Underground closed for the night. In fact I’ve seen only the fantastically weird film of it by Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, but my favourite Wagner opera (and one of my top two operas, with Don Giovanni), is on a similar theme: Lohengrin.


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