Review: Boris Godunov Is More Than Good Enough

Boris Godunov, Royal Opera House ★★★★☆

By Holli-Mae Johnson Last edited 97 months ago

Last Updated 10 April 2016

Review: Boris Godunov Is More Than Good Enough Boris Godunov, Royal Opera House 4

In a court of shadows infested with scheming voyeurs and eavesdroppers, Russian tsar Boris Godunov — ruler by circumstance — is disillusioned and desperate. Suspicion about his part in the previous heir's death, and a fully-grown usurper risen from the grave, plague him to his futile, guilt-ridden end.

The orchestra, under the prestigious baton of music director Antonio Pappano, is frantic, fatalistic, reverent and oppressive in equal measure. No familiar arias or operatic money shots here, but Musorgsky’s score is epic and unstoppable, with hints of the distinctly Russian Volga Boatmen melody. The multitudinous chorus positively clubs you, roaring to the roof.

Miriam Buether's set is enclosed by a panelled iron fortress embossed with portentous bells, where Nicky Gillibrand's slate and dishwater rags soon give way to a dazzling kaleidoscope of sumptuous fabric. The two levels of staging create a separation of majesty and mob, making the tsar's appearances before the starving, unwashed crowd all the more significant. The upper level also serves as a surreal cinema for the brutal re-enactment of the murder of young heir Dmitry, played out repeatedly in Boris' mind.

There are other riches to be savoured. John Tomlinson provides a masterful and welcome comic interlude of beefy bass, booze and banter, and Ain Anger's chronicling monk delivers cavernous, oaky, captivating storytelling.

Prince Shuisky (John Graham Hall) is suitably obsequious and sly, and Boris's son Fyodor (Ben Knight), is exquisitely pure and naive. One exception is David Butt Philip's "sober prig" Grigory (the ‘False Dmitry’); largely uninteresting or sympathetic, dramatically and vocally.

Opera titan Bryn Terfel delivers his celebrated combination of hulk and heart, striding, stalking, and eventually staggering about the stage in an increasingly unstable manner. Never one to resort to sweeping, melodramatic gestures, his Boris is suitably majestic but heavy with hiraeth.

However, one issue with Musorgsky’s original production — performed for the first time at the Royal Opera House and usually overlooked in favour of an expanded second version — is that we don’t get enough time with Boris to fully grasp the intricacies of the man behind the sceptre.

The interactions with his children, particularly the final moments with his son, are moving and beautifully done, but the real Boris remains something of a mystery. Murderer. Father. Savage. Servant. Will the real Boris Godunov please stand up?

Boris Godunov is on at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, until 5 April. Tickets £76-£240. Londonist attended on a press ticket.