In cinema, tales of the downfall of a supreme ruler have been treated anywhere on the scale from grand historical sweep (Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor) to close-up psychological portrait (Oliver Hirschbeigel’s Downfall). In his new Covent Garden production of Mussorgsky’s episodic epic Boris Godunov, Richard Jones clearly inclines towards the latter: I can imagine Jones thinking “What would things have been like if Macbeth had got away with it?”. Jones clearly sides with Pushkin, on whose work the libretto is based (and against broad historical probability) by finding Boris guilty of commissioning the murder of the infant Tsarevich Dmitry: the production is framed by multiple repeats of a stylised dumb show of the red-haired boy, playing with his spinning top as the assassins slit his throat and drag him away.

<i>Boris Godunov</i> at the ROH © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Boris Godunov at the ROH
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore
As a set of concepts, Jones’ staging has a fair amount of merit. And the musical performances last night were never less than thoroughly competent, in both orchestra, chorus and the large number of solo roles. But I found myself badly on the wrong side of some of the artistic choices, both in staging and in music.

John Graham Hall (Prince Shuisky) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
John Graham Hall (Prince Shuisky)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore
The opera is performed on a single two level set, by Miriam Buether: a brightly lit upper floor and a main stage largely in darkness, each decorated in repeating wallpaper patterns: golden for the upper, grey/green/brown with a pattern of church bells for the lower. I might reasonably have expected the bright lights for the nobility, the dingy darkness for the peasants, but that wasn’t applied consistently, for example with Grigory showing up on the top floor during the inn scene. There were errors of detail, such as Shuisky pointing at Lithuania in completely the wrong place on the giant map. And visually, I found the production hugely unappealing, especially as regards Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes and particularly towards the end. When the boyars assemble for the final scene of Boris, they reminded me of a collection of hotel bell captains, with Boris in a sheepskin coat which gave him a sort of Isaiah-in-the-wilderness look. I just couldn’t take it seriously.

Ain Anger (Pimen) and Bryn Terfel (Boris Godunov) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Ain Anger (Pimen) and Bryn Terfel (Boris Godunov)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore
I’m usually a huge fan of Antonio Pappano, but on this occasion, I struggled with his interpretation. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera was producing some good sounds, very much in good balance, but the tempi felt far too quick: there simply wasn’t enough breathing space for the more monumental passages to have their full effect: it’s a score where I want to be carried away by the steady build-ups, not swept away in a rush. And while Bryn Terfel is a superb singer and the strength and musicality of his voice were never in doubt this evening, I’m not convinced that this is the right role for him: for me, it demands a deep, sonorous, fatherly voice rather than Terfel’s steely edge. And Terfel didn’t always seem comfortable injecting emotion into the words: the big confrontational moments, such as when he tells Shuisky that he will mete out a punishment that would make Ivan the Terrible blanch, didn’t quite come off.

Harry Nicoll (Missail) and John Tomlinson (Varlaam) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Harry Nicoll (Missail) and John Tomlinson (Varlaam)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore
With a generally strong all-round cast, there were performances to savour. Ain Anger was outstanding as the monk Pimen, relating the tale of the Tsarevich’s murder in a bass voice that came down the centuries. At the other end of the scale, John Graham-Hall made a magnificently conniving Shuisky, evil dripping through a slightly nasal tone. John Tomlinson obviously relished the near-slapstick fun of his role as the drunken monk Varlaam, and it was good to hear a genuine young boy (Ben Knight) in the role of Boris’ son Fyodor, rather than it being the more usual mezzo trouser role.

Boris Godunov isn’t performed in London all that often. It has a truly wonderful score and this production is decent enough that, especially for anyone who hasn’t heard it before, I can’t do anything other than recommend that you see it. But I wasn’t smitten as I might have hoped for.

Caveat: for the last hour of the performance, an electronic device of some sort (which may or may not have been a phone) was bleeping softly and irregularly near me every couple of minutes or so. Although I did my best to blank this out, it unquestionably damaged my ability to relax into the thread of the music and, in spite of my best efforts, must have affected this review.

***11