Live | Royal Opera House: Bryn Terfel in Boris Godunov

Live | Royal Opera House: Bryn Terfel in Boris Godunov

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 14 March 2016

Music by Modest Musorgsky 1869, original version.

Libretto by Modest Musorgsky, adapted from the play by Pushkin.

Conductor: Antonio Pappano / Director: Richard Jones / Set Designer: Miriam Buether / Costume Designer: Nicky Gillibrand / Lighting Designer: Mimi Jordan Sherin / Movement Director: Ben Wright / Chorus director: Renato Balsadonna

Boris Godunov: Bryn Terfel / Prince Shuisky: John Graham-Hall / Pimen: Ain Anger / Grigory & False Dmitry: David Butt Philip / Varlaam: John Tomlinson / Xenia, Boris’ daughter: Vlada Borovko / Xenia’s nurse: Sarah Pring / Hostess at the Inn: Rebecca de Pont Davies / Fyodor, Boris’ son: Ben Knight / Holy Fool: Andrew Tortise.

Co-production with Deutsche Oper BerlinLive


A very British Boris

Bryn Terfel has notched up another operatic novelty: he is singing his first role in Russian, Boris in Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov, the quintessential Russian opera. He is not the first British singer to do so: that honour went to bass Robert Lloyd in 1983 in a revised version of the opera produced by Andre Tarkovsky. Terfel, a bass-baritone, is singing in a new production by Richard Jones using Musorgsky’s original and rarely heard 1869 version. Anyone expecting dark chocolate bass tones, lush orchestration and sentimental love interest will be disappointed or pleasantly surprised depending on how they like their opera – coated with froth or lean and mean.

This original version was rejected by the Russian authorities because Musorgsky, a mere 30 years old, was trying to create a specifically Russian style rather than imitate European romantic operatic convention. He wrote a work consisting almost entirely of monologues in naturalistic declamation and choruses. It could be described as a play set to music. There are no parts for a prima donna, no love interest (no Pretender courting a Polish princess as in the revised version), no arias, no duets – nothing but grimness and gloom except for the one scene of comedy at the Inn. The work takes seven scenes from Pushkin’s much lengthier play and concentrates on the disintegration of Boris, who becomes Tsar having instigated the murder of the rightful heir, Dmitry: a tortured Boris ruling tortured and oppressed Russian people.

Boris Godunov at ROH
Boris Godunov at ROH

The first scene is dull, looks messy and belongs to the huge 80-strong chorus. The guilt-ridden Boris has retreated to a monastery and hesitates to accept the throne. The crowd mills around waiting for a decision and we, Boris-lovers, are waiting too – waiting to hear if Bryn Terfel can match the handful of Russian basses whose voices have echoed down the centuries. Musorgsky wrote the part for either bass or baritone (some of the vocal lines are high particularly in Scene 5) but basses dominate our image of Boris. In this production we have to be patient. Boris gets less than three minutes in the first hour of the opera. The mournful, ‘My soul is sad’ may be the centre-piece of the brilliant coronation scene but all the bells and yet more bells over-shadow this brief moment.

Piemen (Ain Anger) & Boris Godunov (Bryn Terfel)
Piemen (Ain Anger) & Boris Godunov (Bryn Terfel)

The role develops in the second hour by which time we have adjusted to the fact that this is a different type of opera. Terfel slowly wins us over. The more deranged he becomes, hidden inside a shaggy coat, the more the part becomes his. The dying is memorable: groaning, gasping and stuttering, a guilty man sags to the floor. Terfel’s voice is neither deep nor sonorous enough to compete with the past but his performance is distinct and nuanced. ROH is courageous in giving us something new, a baritone in the title role, the original score and a distinctly British production under the baton of British-Italian, Antonio Pappano. The cast contains only one Russian, Vlada Borovko, in the tiny role of Xenia, Boris’ daughter. The Estonian, Ain Anger, making his house debut, provides a glorious dash of bass sound. The rest of the cast of a dozen is from the UK, led by the much-loved John Tomlinson who completes a hat-trick: he has previously sung both Boris and Pimen, in this production he sings Varlaam.

Pimen (Ain Anger) & Grigory Otrepiev (The 'False Dmitry') credit Catherine Ashmore
Pimen (Ain Anger) & Grigory Otrepiev (The ‘False Dmitry’)

Richard Jones, also British, is the director working with his usual (British) team of Miriam Buether (sets), Nicky Gillibrand (costumes) and Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting). Jones is famous for his use of favoured tropes and fans eagerly await their appearance. We were not disappointed. The well-drilled chorus is one such: often they managed to move as one which is no mean feat and is particularly effective when they turned to look at the new Tsar. They were less impressive in the Boyars’ council scene when all they needed to do was sit with a hand on each knee.

We know from the outset that this production will focus on the murder of Dmitry because a child’s spinning top decorates the front cloth. The stage offers a two-tier set. On the top level the murder of a masked Dmitry – playing with a spinning top – is carried out by three black-clothed assassins. It is carried out over and over, every time Boris’s thoughts return to this wicked deed. At one point the spinning top also glides unaided across the stage in an echo of Jones’s Glyndebourne Macbeth, where a box bearing a ‘smiley’ also appears to glide unaided across the stage! (I think it was meant to be Banquo’s ghost).

The dominant colour of the top tier, acid yellow with neon rim is reminiscent of Jones’s recent Old Vic production of Eugene O’Neill’s Hairy Ape. The ground level is garnished with bells engraved into grey walls, and numerous paintings of tsars hanging in neat rows.  The programme notes helpfully point out that the real Boris G was more than a little interested in bells and had added an extra tier to the Kremlin’s bell tower, and that he also had himself painted into an historic fresco in the Kremlin’s faceted Palace. Jones rarely does anything without a reason, you just need to crack the code. It isn’t always possible:  The final seconds are confusing: both Boris’s son, Fyodor, and Grigory/ the False Dmitry were dressed similarly and both have ugly red wigs. Why? And who appeared at the left-hand corner of the top tier at the end? It could have been either: history tells us that both had a short spell on the throne.

The evening’s only real disappointment was the costumes. The coronation scene looked suitably colourful but from the front row of the amphitheatre they resembled Russian dolls that fit inside each other. At other times the clothes did not make sense. Boris dressed in a powder-blue jacket, chinos and black shoes looked incongruous and the boyars, who are meant to be aristocrats, were dressed like bell-hops.

The cinema live showing on Monday, March 21 is not to be missed:  it is an opportunity to see a rare work done with considerable élan.


Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, March 21, 24, 26, 30 and April 5, 2016

Cinema Screening, March 21 at 7.15.  The performance runs for 2 hours and 15 minutes without an interval

All photos, credit Catherine Ashmore