The NTR ZaterdagMatinee concert series at the Concertgebouw traditionally opens with an opera. This year it was a fiery performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s masterpiece Boris Godunovconducted by Pablo Heras-Casado and with a practically faultless cast. Like Richard III, who probably did not have his two young nephews killed in the Tower of London, Boris Godunov is unlikely to have murdered the ten-year-old Dimitri, son of Ivan the Terrible. But rulers with blood-stained hands make for better plays. Mussorgsky based his opera on a play by Pushkin that spans Boris’ reign, from his coronation in 1598 to his death in 1605. Holding Russia’s welfare dear, Boris is persuaded to become tsar, but guilt gnaws at him even as he is crowned. Increasingly, he has to navigate political waters infested with duplicitous boyars and scheming Jesuits. Hunger and plague afflict his subjects, who are incited to revolt. While the dead Dimitri becomes a saintly figure who performs miracles, Boris falls prey to hallucinations. His successor is, ironically, the False Dimitri, a pretender who claims to be the murdered boy.

Boris Godunov comes in several versions and conflations, including a once dominant re-orchestrated and embellished version by Rimsky-Korsakov. Heras-Casado steered the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, their sister choir and the Flemish Radio Choir, all at peak performance, through the composer’s 1872 revised version, including his final edits from 1873. This meant the inclusion of the Polish scenes, in which the Pretender wins the hand of Marina, and the exclusion of Boris’ encounter with the Holy Fool. Also, Pimen the chronicler-monk referrred to Dimitri’s liquidation without narrating its details. From beginning to end, Heras-Casado had Mussorgsky's colossal score in a firm grasp, delivering a deeply passionate performance underpinned by the cleanest of rhythms. The coronation scene was everything it should be – climactic and overwhelming. But just as masterly was the way the orchestra unerringly punctuated the singers’ words, with doomy double basses and violins that rang like rapidly drawn daggers. Confoundingly versatile, the choir painted the changing moods of the crowd in the prologue and the final scene in vibrant colour. 

The title role was entrusted to Alexander Tsymbalyuk, who has received rhapsodic reviews for his tortured tsar. He sang with wrenching sensitivity. His beautiful, youthful bass and physical restraint made his Boris both commanding and sympathetic. Although Mussorgsky’s vocal writing is shaped by conversational inflections, Tsymbalyuk never resorted to grunts, mumbles or yells. He sang the whole time, until the final hushed phrases of his death scene. The way he revealed consecutive layers of encroaching madness with each of his monologues was chillingly effective. No less imposing was the resonant, varnished bass of Ante Jerkunica as the hermit Pimen.

Frank van Aken filled the hall with his ample sound and acted superbly as the slippery Prince Shuisky. His witness account of the slain boy’s body defying the decaying process was a spine-tingling horror scene. When we got a peek into Boris’s domestic life, Tetiana Miyus sang limpidly as Xenia, his daughter. Mezzo-soprano Olivia Vermeulen was pure-toned as his son, although she would have been more communicative had her eyes been less glued to the score. Cécile van de Sant distinguished herself with a vivid, handsomely sung nurse.

Boris Godunov takes us from Moscow to the Lithuanian border to Poland and back again, and everywhere we went there were wonderful singers. At the inn where Grigory, the False Dimitri, has a narrow escape, fruity mezzo-soprano Yulia Mennibaeva was the lusty innkeeper. Bass-baritone Alexander Krasnov as Vaarlam sang of the destruction of Kazan with an impish lightness. After all, what could be jollier than a drunken celebration of 43,000 slaughtered Tartars? Tenor Mark Omvlee was his worthy fellow traveller Misail. The Polish Act was resplendent. Replacing an indisposed Ksenia Dudnikova at the eleventh-hour, mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova sang Marina. She was voluptuous of voice and coldly beautiful of manner. Vladislav Sulimsky menaced her so diabolically as the Jesuit Rangoni that his dark baritone almost oozed sulphur fumes.

Chorus and orchestra rendered the splendour of Sandomir Castle in a glittering, heel-clicking Polonaise. Kolosova and tenor Dmitry Golovnin as the False Dimitri provided the exciting finale in one of the most cynical love duets in opera (I’ll love you as long as you become Tsar). Golovnin tackled his part with fearless fervour, the highly-strung quality of his top notes befitting the deceitful persona of the Pretender. The rest of the cast included Boris Pinkhasovich as an arresting Shchelkalov, Secretary of the Duma, and tenor James Kryshak as the dolorous Holy Fool, who brings the opera to its melancholy ending. There were roaring cheers for everyone. The Saturday matinee season couldn’t have got off to a finer start.