Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Boris Godunov - ENO

Boris Godunov by Musorgsky
Translation: David Lloyd-Jones
Director: Tim Albery
Conductor: Edward Gardner
Reviewer: Jeffrey Mayhew
That ENO’s Boris Godunov was very good without, except at moments, being brilliant, is probably more to do with the choice of score – the original 1869 version – and the relatively minimalist setting rather than any inadequacies in the cast, music or direction.
It is probably inevitable that both Rimsky-Korsakov’s rescoring and classic Russian visual images in the style of Ivan Bilibin inextricably colour our perception of this opera. To me the interpretation was very much of Pushkin's text as much as Mussorgsky’s opera - digging deep into the parallels between the late sixteenth century reign of Boris and Pushkin’s own, early nineteenth century experiences. Pushkin had clashed with the government and wrote Boris in the inevitably ensuing exile. The opera, in turn, proved controversial. In this current interpretation there are clear references to immediately pre-revolutionary Russia - caped officers in white, Volga boatmen style peasants, echoes of the Winter Palace steps via Eisenstein, photos of the last Tsar and his family. So it was rather intellectual and "careful" – nothing wrong with that in itself but maybe not what you think it says (or should say) on the tin.

The concept served the opening moments wonderfully - a huge, timber, barn-like box set with half lit, grey clad peasants harangued by the clergy and hounded by the military was real Lower Depths stuff. Later when, with rather overtly economical touches (like the lowering of a single lamp, or tipping in a little gold chair), it had to serve as a courtyard, a monastic cell, an inn or a palace it did seem to feel a bit stretched. Tobias Hoheisel’s design was fine as far as it went – and it was stunningly lit by Adam Silverman – but there were times, especially when trying to follow changes of time and place, when that didn’t seem quite far enough. The costumes, by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, were beautifully faithful to the concept and looked wonderful en masse. Again, though, knowledge of the show (or a good read of the programme before curtain up) is good idea – there is a lot of black and grey!
Given all that Tim Albery gave us a fine production with little recourse to levels but yet still delivering some stunning crowd scenes – and that crowd can certainly sing! Singing is where we are at though. Whilst Peter Rose (Boris) could be seen to be perhaps over restrained at times he nevertheless gives the performance appropriate to the conception and with some stunning vocal moments and real presence. All the rest of the cast are excellent, too, with some fine acting as well as singing from John Graham-Hall as Shuisky and Robert Murray as the Holy Fool. This is a very male piece but Yvonne Howard needs especial mention as the innkeeper and Sophie Bevan as Xenia. For me (but this is inevitably subjective) the evenings honours went to Bridley Sherratt as Pimen with a voice and presence worthy of Chaliapin himself.

Edward Gardner made the most of this very different scoring achieving some sublime moments during Boris’s descent into madness. This is a very good production of what it is, as it were. Where it might seem to fall short for some is when what is isn’t becomes a problem.
Photos: Clive Barder
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