BORIS GODUNOV by Mussorgsky; Royal Opera House; Covent Garden; London, UK; 17 June 2019; Boris Godunov - Bryn Terfel (rt); Prince Shuisky - Roger Honeywell; Conductor - Marc Albrecht; Director - Richard Jones; Set designer - Miriam Buether; Costume designer - Nicky Gillibrand; Lighting designer - Mimi Jordan Sherin; Movement director - Ben Wright; Photo: © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL

Boris Godunov

Reviewer's rating

‘Made in Britain” is written all over this revival production of the Russian opera ‘Boris Godunov’. Fittingly, even the name Boris is currently associated in the UK with unquenched desire to reach the ultimate realm of power. Eliminating rivals on the path to power goes beyond semantic, and those covet the throne, are expected to apply more vigorous actions. Boris Godunov, like Richard III, did not shy away from murdering the young rightful heir to the throne, Tsarevich Dmitry, to secure his claim to the title or at least he was complicit in the boy’s murder. This is, of course, a version of events, based on rumours that suited the subsequent usurpers. Boris Godunov had a bad press that has been perpetuated in Pushkin’s play and immortalised in Mussorgsky’s totally immersing opera.

The libretto based on Pushkin’s 1825 play of the same title, where the characters are drawn, with a great degree of liberty, from Russia’s history. Boris Godunov’s reign, 1598-1605, is wedged, between the Rurik and the Romanov dynasties.

Mussorgsky’s opera and clearly Richard Jones’s production is not about power struggle but a window into the internal struggle of a powerful Tsar whose conscience weighs him down.

Bryn Terfel is a charismatic bass. His Godunov is a broken man and not a powerful Tsar. Terfel leads a predominantly British cast, as the tormented Tsar. Although the lead character drives the opera, the excellent performance by all soloists and the chorus provides the nuts and bolts that sustain the dramatic tension. David Butt Philip’s Grigori/Dmitri is a clear-voiced, if slightly lachrymose, Matthew Rose’s Piman is sonorous, though his acting skills could be improved. John Tomlinson sang with rollicking gusto as Varlaam, complemented by Harry Nicoll’s Missail. Excellent all round. Haegee Lee’s Xenia, Boris’s daughter is very good, I would have loved to hear more of her. Sam Furness as the Holy Fool conveys with sophisticated cynicism, the discomfort his presence causes. Furness delivers a memorable Yurodivy a small but powerful part. The chorus singing beautifully reflect the hues that mirror the character of the Russian people. The orchestra directed and conducted by Marc Albrecht sustains the dark colour of Mussorgsky’s piece, yet Albrecht manages to draw from the orchestra a vivid sense of drama, balancing its chromatic tonality with that of the singers.

Miriam Buether’s split-level staging set of the main stage and a vaulted gallery above, offers the audience full view of the unfolding drama and access into Godunov’s inner tormented mind, as well as to some conspiracies that impact the unfolding narrative on the main stage. Like a bubble in the comic strip, the lunette displays extracts from Godunov’s perceptions that related to events on the main stage.

This is an excellent introduction to this opera, where the Russian element is embedded in the libretto and the inventive musical score.