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Boris Godunov (ROH, 21 March 2016)

It is the first time ROH has produced the original (1869) version. This production was a mixed bag for me. The biggest problem was that I didn’t feel the inherent “Russian-ness”. This isn’t the kind of general feel opera which you can transpose anywhere, any time and it feels timeless. This is “exotic” in the sense thst it deals with a very specific part of the world and very specific reactions to circumstances. It is timeless that way.

Boris Godunov: Bryn Terfel
Prince Shuisky: John Graham-Hall
Andrey Shchelkalov: Kostas Smoriginas
Grigory Otrepiev: David Butt Philip
Pimen: Ain Anger
Varlaam: John Tomlinson
Missail: Harry Nicoll
Xenia: Vlada Borovko
Yurodivy (Holy Fool): Andrew Tortise
Xenia’s Nurse: Sarah Pring
Hostess of the inn: Rebecca de Pont Davies
Mityukha: Adrian Clarke
Frontier Guard: James Platt
Nikitich: Jeremy White
Fyodor: Ben Knight
Boyar: Nicholas Sales
Conductor: Antonio Pappano | Choir and Orchestra of the ROH
Director: Richard Jones

You have to sell The Pretender somehow. Grown men “forged in the heat of battle” end up shitting their fine linen when some 20 year old (The Pretender) announces he’s the murdered crown prince as he had not died after all, the sole explaination being “weird dreams” (his own). This kind of thing flies in parts of the world where people still trample each other queueing to touch saintly relics. Here in the West, though, this kind of experience isn’t readily available to artists seeking to portray such a surrealist atmosphere.

As a result I felt once again that the necessary mysterious and unsettling non so che was missing. Ever seen the 1956 Hollywood version of War in Peace? Absolutely awful, awful, every actor miscast, the tone of the piece completely wrong. This is better, because the music is always there to save their arses. And, to be fair, the singers aren’t miscast. Just not nearly Russian enough.

Richard Jones’ staging was also only superficially Russian. The arched, golden “court area” above the stage was a good idea and gave it a bit of atmosphere. But then his team chose to have the boyars dressed as they would in Musorgsky’s time. Another hark-back (forward?) to the composer’s time. Sigh. I don’t know why directors love this idea. In this case it felt completely out of place, not adding anything useful but further ruining the meager atmosphere. The peasants/regular people wore peasant-y clothes, all in various shades of grey. Fair enough. Then, all of a sudden, for one of the big choruses, the choir returned dressed in bright, multipatterned attire. Some people (monks) wore robes but mixed with contemporary footwear. The Pretender (Otrepiev) wore a contemporary jacket and jumper bought in a second hand shop from a poor area. Him, of all people, was firmly placed nowadays.

BgodunovRoh2016I guess the fact that the crown prince is repeatedly shown being murdered in the arched, gold “court area” is meant to remind us that no, The Pretender is definitely not him – resurrected or not (the libretto is rather vague on how the crown prince might’ve escaped). Just in case we thought otherwise. Don’t flatter yourselves, the production has not an ounce of strangeness to it. We’re still firmly ensconced in a reality where you can’t even begin to consider such things.

Musically the most memorable bit was the peaceful part that almost reached a medieval feel where Pimen the chronicler monk is talking about how he wants to preserve history so that what has happened – in which he includes prophecies and rumours –  is not lost to future generations. Wagnerian bass Ain Anger as Pimen was for me the most touchingly lyrical presence in the whole peace.

Not to say that Terfel in the title role wasn’t good. He sang with sesitivity and his voice feels good to the ear in this role but dramatically he was more Lear than Godunov. His interaction with Ben Knight as Godunov’s son Fyodor was excellent.

The rogue-ish monks Varlaam and Missail were very entertaining but – again – in a Western OTT way. Listen how Kuznecov sings the drinking song in a Gergiev-led version; there’s a certain impishness with a tinge of fairytale to it. When I heard this I was immediately transported to Gogol’s world. With Tomlinson it was a lot of fun but Viy didn’t come to mind even for a moment.

There is a debate as to where the best seats are for different types of opera but I think the first few rows in the gods are always a very good to decent bet. In this case I was sitting centrally and still the Coronation Scene could best be described as noisy: the chorus was loud, the bells were loud, the orchestra took it up 3-4 notches. I’m surprised we were spared sirens and airplanes taking off. I know it’s supposed to be loud, but I couldn’t discern any rhyme or reason.

I dozed off through most of what happens once the Pretender escapes the border patrol to Lithuania but (likewise) came back to life for Godunov’s elaborate dying scene. I’ve since given it another listen at home and I think I’d’ve liked it better had I known it a bit more. Some other time, then – with a Russian cast/conductor.

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