This film presentation of the Royal Opera’s new production of Boris Godunov with music and libretto by Modest Mussorgsky, is based on a play by Russian literature-great Alexander Pushkin. It was captured live from London’s Royal Opera House (ROH) at Covent Garden only a few weeks ago on 21 March 2016. It runs for a minute or two shy of three hours without an interval, is sung in Russian (with English subtitles) and is dramatic.
Boris Gudonov is Mussorgsky’s only completed opera and it had a tortured birth. It was initially rejected for production because it lacked a leading female role, and therefore the potential for soprano arias and duets etc, and was revised several times and eventually premiered in 1873. Later both Rimsky-Korsakov and (much later) Shostakovich tried to make it “better” to overcome Mussorgsky’s lesser orchestration skills. The Royal Opera’s production is of Mussorgsky’s “rougher” 1869 original, not the 1874 revision which is the one usually performed.
Boris Godunov was a real historical figure. He was the Russian Tsar from 1598 to 1605 during the so-called Time of Troubles, which was the interregnum between Tsar Ivan the Terrible and the beginning of the Romanov dynasty. The popular theory is that Godunov, while Regent, murdered the young tsarevitch – Ivan the Terrible’s son and heir – to become ruler, and the opera follows this line and focusses on the period between the murder, Godunov becoming Tsar, and his troubles in retaining power during periods of plague and famine (that appear to prove Godunov’s guilt to the populus), and the advent of a pretender. It is a story of murder, corruption, guilt and demise, and Mussorgsky’s often heavy orchestration underlines the dramatic gloom of the story.
Anything less than a superlative performance in the lead role risks any production of Boris Godunov “falling over”, but in the hands of Welsh super-star bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, this production is quite superb. Terfel sings the title role for the first time, and he is brilliant. His voice of course is stellar but his exquisitely wrought acting skills and portrayal of the tormented Tsar’s fall from prominence to insanity are the icing on the cake. He sang the “hallucination scheme” especially well, and the close-ups of his face that the cinema presentation provides sent a shiver through one’s spine.
Terfel was well supported by John Tomlinson as the monk Varlaam, and John Graham-Hall as Prince Shuisky, and especially by Estonian bass Ain Anger who made his Royal Opera debut in the role of Pimen. The Royal Opera House chorus was empathetic to the music and ran the gamut of emotions from joy through to subjugation and simmering anger. Their costuming was excellent and they looked magnificent in the courtly scenes (but perhaps anachronistic?). The orchestra of the ROH under the baton of the seasoned Antonio Pappano successfully brought out the nuances and, at times, dreaminess of Mussorgsky’s score.
Miriam Buether’s black-box set design had a Russian winter’s crispness about it and the action moved effortlessly from monastery, to Kremlin, to public house and village square. The theory that Godunov had arranged for the murder of the tsarevitch is reinforced by it being re-enacted several times throughout the opera in a compelling dumb-show played out on an upper level high above the stage. It was a master stroke of design.
Costuming by Nicky Gillibrand was an irritating mix of period and modern. Perhaps there was some symbolic significance to it that escaped me, or perhaps it was a clumsy suggestion that the themes of political corruption are timeless.
In all, a great production of an opera that is not often seen in Australia, and well worth the visit to Palace Nova to see.
Reviewed by Kym Clayton16
Rating out of 10: 7
Boris Gudonov will screen again on Wednesday 27 April at 11:00am, as part of the Palace Opera & Ballet cinema season, presenting the Royal Opera House, La Scala, Opéra National de Paris and Opera Di Roma– exclusive at the Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas.