Boris Godunov, Mussorgsky’s biopic of the accession to power and descent into madness of its eponymous tsar, is notable in many ways, but most of all for its sheer Russianness. The Royal Opera’s first revival of Richard Jones’ 2016 production nowhere more so than in the opening crowd scene. It's replete with humour of a uniquely Russian flavour with its archetypes of the grumpy policeman (Jeremy White’s Nikitich) and the confused, overwrought peasants (led by Adrian Clarke’s Mityukha), as Nikitich makes stuttering efforts to rouse the peasants to clamour for Boris to accept supreme power (what, a pub quiz might ask, do 17th-century Russian peasants and 21st-century Conservative Party members have in common).

Boris' coronation © ROH | Clive Barda
Boris' coronation
© ROH | Clive Barda

The scene where the monk Pimen tells the young novice Grigory of Boris’ crimes is redolent of a less salubrious form of Russianness: the tendency to rewrite history in favour of one’s own opinions while ignoring the evidence. There’s no compelling historical evidence that the real Boris murdered the Tsarevich Dmitry, and Pimen’s evidence is unreliably obtained under torture, but that doesn’t stop the scene from being a powerful one. Matthew Rose was a fervent Pimen with excellent bass legato; David Butt Philip slipped back with ease into the role of Dmitry that he took on in 2016, providing youthful exuberance, vigour and clear diction.

David Butt Philip (Grigory) and Matthew Rose (Pimen) © ROH | Clive Barda
David Butt Philip (Grigory) and Matthew Rose (Pimen)
© ROH | Clive Barda

The following scene, in the inn by the Lithuanian border, is the opera’s comic relief interlude, featuring a barnstorming Sir John Tomlinson as Varlaam, going more over the top than ever in his tall stories of the “Battle of Kazan”; Harry Nicoll proved himself surprisingly adept at playing the spoons as his sidekick Missail. The final moments of Grigory’s escape from the police were staged neatly and hilariously, even if I can't suppress the nit-pick that Grigory when goes offstage to make his break for the border, he's heading in the wrong direction.

Harry Nicoll (Missail) and John Tomlinson (Varlaam) © ROH | Clive Barda
Harry Nicoll (Missail) and John Tomlinson (Varlaam)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Under the auspices of revival director Gerard Jones, this revival feels slightly sharper than the first run: the lighting is clearer, the singers move more crisply and the repeated murder of the infant Dmitry feels less intrusive. There is continuity in some of the strongest performances: Butt Philip, Tomlinson and Sir Bryn Terfel as Boris. While Terfel is unlikely ever to produce the gravelly timbre typical of Russian basses, his musicality is never in question and his depth of characterisation of the tortured tsar has increased: this was a performance full of emotional depth. There were also some notable new faces: Roger Honeywell’s conniving Shuisky was well characterised and incisively sung, while Boris Pinkhasovich as Shchelkalov made the most of his intervention in the boyars' scene towards the end of the opera. Young Joshua Abrams made a good impression as Boris’ young son Fyodor.

Bryn Terfel (Boris) and Roger Honeywell (Shuisky) © ROH | Clive Barda
Bryn Terfel (Boris) and Roger Honeywell (Shuisky)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Boris Godunov has been performed in more variants than any other major opera of its time: this production is unusual in choosing Mussorgsky’s original version from 1869. This has the virtues of being compact (just over two hours, played with no interval) and more coherent (inasmuch as that’s possible, given the opera’s episodic nature): there’s a strong case to be made that these virtues override the loss of the Polish act that Mussorgsky added later in response to complaints of there being no suitably significant female role in the opera. Jones’ staging is also compact and coherent, and the best of the visuals – the coronation robes, the giant faces of the tsars in Pimen’s history – are striking. But too much of the staging is mundane and struggles to lift the opera out of the ordinary and the orchestral performance under Marc Albrecht was well paced but felt a little too safe, only raising the thrill level on occasion.

It’s worth seeing this Boris Godunov for the fine performances by Terfel and Tomlinson as well as for the tautness and broad historical sweep of the work. But it still left me wanting more.


***11