Boris is all the rage in London this season. Elected to supreme power, he is haunted by a dodgy past and eventually crumbles. No, not Boris Johnson (Bachtrack is an election-free zone!), but Boris Godunov. This is at least the third concert presentation of Mussorgsky’s opera in the capital this season. The Mariinsky Opera brought the complete work to the Barbican, while the OAE presented extracts in January, with the great Sergei Leiferkus as the troubled tsar. Now, the Philharmonia hustles in with Jakub Hrůša’s selection of five ‘bleeding chunks’ presenting an hour-long portrait of the opera.

Jakub Hrůša © Petra Klačková
Jakub Hrůša
© Petra Klačková

The advertised semi-staged production was a loose description. Director David Edwards had the members of Philharmonia Voices file through a darkened Royal Festival Hall, illuminated by their score lamps. Actors held aloft icons during the Coronation Scene, empty bowls when the crowds appealed for bread, or candles during Boris’ death throes. Soloists wore nondescript costumes; all apart from Dimitry Ivashchenko’s Boris who, despite being presented with all the trappings of office during his coronation, remained dressed in suit and black, open-necked shirt throughout, like a businessman wandering into the production by accident.

Ivashchenko’s performance was emotionally distanced as well, though that could be due to the opera being presented in five isolated scenes, meaning that the Russian bass didn’t have the opportunity to build a rounded character. Boris is a role which requires larger-than-life acting, but Ivashchenko remained subdued, turning from the audience to sip water. In the “Clock Scene”, when Boris hallucinates an image of the murdered Dimitry (here rendered very real, a child in bloodstained nightgown), Ivashchenko looked vaguely distracted rather than tormented. His soft-grained bass is exceptionally noble and beautiful, but the bite was missing.

The singer who made the biggest impression was Hubert Francis in the role of the slippery boyar Prince Shuisky. Rolling his tongue around the Russian text with relish, he presented exactly the extrovert characterisation required. His manipulation of Boris, informing him of a Pretender to the throne, was deliciously wicked.

Hrůša drew dark, grainy playing from the Philharmonia’s strings and maintained urgent tempi. The pomp and glitter of the Coronation Scene (off-stage bells tolling) made a strong impression, the brass section responding gleefully with plenty of raw power. The Philharmonia Voices sang with great tonal beauty, even if one would never mistake them for a Russian choir. The most moving part of the performance came when the filed out along the side stalls as Boris expired, enveloping listeners in a warm commentary.

The first half had consisted of three overtures by way of a prelude to the extracts from Boris, with contributions from three of Mussorgsky’s fellow “Mighty Handful” members: Borodin, Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov. It is odd, though, that not a single note of Balakirev (their self-appointed leader) appeared in this two concert series under the “Mighty Handful” heading.

The opera Prince Igor was left incomplete at the time of Borodin’s death. The overture – a pot pourri mostly drawn from the Polovtsian act – was composed by Glazunov, allegedly after hearing Borodin play it through once at the piano. Hrůša led a pacy account, dashing through the mighty brass fanfares and bustling through string passages. Only in the great horn solo (based on Igor’s aria) did he relax, allowing Kate Woolley to phrase this melody expansively.

César Cui is the least well-known member of the Mighty Handful, although he was one of the most prolific. The overture to Le flibustier (The Buccaneer) is far from a swashbuckling prelude such as Berlioz’s Le corsaire. His comédie lyrique is a farce of mistaken identity and was the only one of Cui’s 15 operas to be written in French. After sounding a little thin during Prince Igor, the Philharmonia strings clicked into gear and lavished warm, full tone in the swooning violin theme which Cui builds in the latter half of the piece.

It was appropriate that Rimsky-Korsakov closed the first half. As Mussorgsky’s one-time room-mate, nobody knew the composer better, and he was responsible for assembling a performing edition of Boris, “cleaning up” Mussorgsky’s orchestration, which ensured the opera’s survival. The Overture on Three Russian Themes opens with the same “Slava” theme that Mussorgsky gave the chorus at Boris’ coronation. In this fine performance, listeners would also have recognised “At the Gate”, a quirky peasant dance more famously employed by Tchaikovsky during his 1812 Overture. Rimsky’s orchestration skills are always to be admired, nowhere more so than the episode for harp and shimmering strings, delicately performed.

Hrůša demonstrated great empathy for these Russian composers, and if Boris didn’t quite come off in performance, the intention and the integrated programming was admirable.