Tim Albery's new production of Boris Godunov is an unremittingly bleak view of Musorgsky's masterpiece which provides a sombre, claustrophobic atmosphere for the troubled Tsar to nurture the inner demons that eventually destroy him. Those looking for lavish sets of cathedral steps and onion domes, gilt thrones and Russian cliché will need to look elsewhere.
However, as presented here in Musorgsky's early seven-scene version – completed in 1869 – with just a couple of additions from the later 1872 score, the audience is always going to be in for a grim ride. The love interest of the later version and the contrast of a major female role are nowhere to be seen, nor are the smoother edges of Rimsky-Korsakov's version, now all but banished from the stage.
What we have is the rough and ready genius of the score that was too much for the committee of the Imperial Theatres, who rejected it in 1871. In this guise, though, the work seems to bring out the best in ENO's Music Director Edward Gardner and with the Orchestra of English National Opera on excellent form, Gardner ratcheted up the tension, capturing all the raw, febrile intensity of Musorgsky's score with consummate skill. A generally fine cast and the chorus on roof-raising form added to a performance of consistently high musical quality.
Albery's production is minimalist, uninterventionist but quietly intelligent and Tobias Hoheisel's set is straightforward: a bulky looking box of distressed wood. Heavy doors at the back slide open occasionally to show either Boris walking solemnly by before his coronation speech or, more often, to expose the bleak vastness of the troubled Russian landscape, imposingly evoked by Adam Silverman's lighting. Boris's study is an armchair at the end of a slab that is lowered down from the right hand side; he addresses the Russian people from a ledge that slides out from the left, through the same opening that Grigory effects his escape in Scene Four.
The box adds to the production's claustrophobia but it means we never lose sight of the Russian soil which is spread across the stage: even in his study Boris hovers only inches above it, a symbol of Mother Russia in whose cause he carried out the deed that now torments him. And as the curtain opens the chorus rise up out of this very soil as the personification of their troubled homeland.
Although this production might be worryingly abstemious for some, for me the decision to eschew the clutter that is often deemed necessary to elucidate a story – whether the result of economic concerns or an independent directorial decision – made for a welcome directness. The opera is not set here in any discernable era and retains a feel of universality, despite a bare electric light to illuminate Pimen in his study or the 'inn' of Scene Four: a handcart sparingly adorned with fairy lights. The scenes move seamlessly into one another so that the whole drama retains a momentum and inexorable sweep, helped by ENO's decision to do without an interval.
However, Boris Godunov is an opera that inevitably relies on a performance of strength and power from the eponymous Tsar. Hopes were high for Peter Rose, singing the role for the first time. However, although his performance was never less than thoroughly professional, delivered with smoothly controlled vocalism and rare clarity in getting the text across, one couldn't escape the feeling that Rose was miscast in the role.
The voice lacks the menace to send a shiver down the spine or the gravelly rumble that reflects the soul of a character who is being simultaneously devoured by guilt, weighed down by thanklessness and solitude of his position, and is all the while grimly aware of the irony that it was his pursuit of the latter that resulted in the former. Rose acts extremely well and is chilling in his various hallucinations but still seems most convincing as a doting father to his children than as the troubled Tsar.
As Pimen, Brindley Sherratt had more of that world-weary timbre and was significantly more convincing in his portrayal, creating a character defined by a quiet nobility and deep knowledge, hinting strongly at the latent power carried with it. His was probably the vocal performance of the evening but this was a strong ensemble effort. John Graham-Hall was threateningly suave and scheming as Shuisky and Robert Murray, whose voice continues to grow into an instrument with a pleasing mixture of lyricism and steel, was outstanding in his brief appearance as the Simpleton, who here quietly leads Boris out into the wilderness at the end.
The strong casting extended to Anna Grevelius, Rosina in ENO's recent revival of The Barber of Seville, taking the small role of Fyodor. As Xenia, however, Sophie Bevan sounded miscast: her voice a little too matronly for Boris's young daughter. As the pretender, though, Gregory Turay sang strongly, portraying the young novice's impatience and impertinence well. Jonathan Veira's Varlaam was excellent in the comic scenes on the Lithuanian border, as was Yvonne Howard's inn-keeper. All other smaller roles were well taken.
One could argue that one unfortunate decision with this production was that the chorus, on outstanding form, were denied their final scene in the Kromy Forest, a favourite among Soviet audiences, David Nice tells us in his programme essay, for shifting the focus back onto the Russian people. The massed forces of the ENO chorus probably constituted the strongest character in this story yet ended up having to pass the focus back onto a Boris who had failed similarly to assert himself over the drama.
However, although this is not a Boris Godunov to scale the loftiest heights of intensity, it is a powerful evening's theatre. It is a fine achievement by English National Opera and although Rose's assumption of the role is modest in characterisation, he has the good sense not to try and bulk it out with stock, melodramatic gestures. Similarly the production itself reflects the essence of Musorgsky's score: terse, economical and refreshingly free from the trappings of operatic convention.
By Hugo Shirley
Photo Credits: Clive Barda
Read our interview with Peter Rose about singing Boris Godunov here...