Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is a huge, sprawling canvas of Russian life. Its four hours include a host of characters familiar to us from Russian literature: drunken priests and policemen, conniving noblemen, simple peasants, dastardly Western enemies and that particularly Russian conceit of the holy fool. The opera’s action takes place in the streets of Moscow, in taverns, in state rooms of palaces and in their intimate inner spaces.

Edem Umerov (Boris)
© Natasha Razina | State Academic Mariinsky Theatre

Coming to see Boris at the Mariinsky is an experience not to be missed: you’re hearing a superb native Russian-speaking chorus and one of the world’s great opera orchestras, all of whom have this music in their blood. However, that doesn’t guarantee all round perfection, and while some parts of last night’s performance fully lived up to expectations, a number of things were out of kilter – not least due to the late withdrawal of Mikhail Petrenko from the title role. In the event, we had not one but two replacement Borises: Edem Umerov in the first half and Vladimir Vaneyev in the second.

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What worked, on every level, were the crowd scenes. In Andrei Tarkovsky’s venerable production (now in its 34th year), the seething masses swirl around whoever are the protagonists of the moment, and we get a vivid take on Mussorgsky’s humourous pointing out that most individuals in a crowd don’t really know what’s happening or why. The chorus are in wonderful voice, with the basses sounding like they do in no other country. And the orchestral sound is huge, full and rich, the giant church bells (real ones, no sampling here) tolling with magisterial timbre.

Children's Chorus
© Natasha Razina | State Academic Mariinsky Theatre

The problem is that there’s far too much of the orchestral sound for almost all of the soloists, almost all of the time – the more so when they are singing from the raised back of the stage, as they often do. In far too many of the key moments in the opera, I had to strain desperately to hear the singing; there were some pianissimi that I couldn’t hear at all. All of Umerov as Boris, Mikhail Kolelishvili as Varlaam, Mikhail Kit as Pimen and Yevgeny Ivanov as Shuisky suffered from this to a greater or lesser extent, and any sense of dramatic involvement was diminished as a result. The Mariinsky Orchestra were producing a fabulous sound, but I do feel that conductor Pavel Smelkov should have been reining them in.

The best sung act turned out to be Act III, the “Polish Act”, inserted by Mussorgsky into the 1872 version of the score in order to provide the female role that would eventually get Boris Godunov accepted by the Imperial Theatres. The interplay between Natalia Yevstafieva, as the ambitious Polish princess Marina, and Roman Burdenko, her Jesuit confessor Rangoni, provided some of the best vocal thrills of the evening. Unfortunately, the Polish act is far from the strongest piece of drama, with Marina veering rather erratically and inexplicably between opposite emotions and actions. The other scene added in 1872, the closing scene of the triumph of the false pretender Dmitry, doesn’t do much for me either.

The Polish Act
© Natasha Razina | State Academic Mariinsky Theatre

The biggest highlight, for me, was the point at which the Simpleton refuses to pray for Boris – the Virgin Mary would not accept prayers for a child killer – Andrei Popov’s high, plaintive tenor extracted every possible ounce of pathos from the scene. The scenes between Vaneyev as Boris and his young son Feodor (Yekaterina Sergeyeva) were also effective in delivering pathos, particularly on Boris’s deathbed.

Vladimir Vaneyev (Boris)
© Natasha Razina | State Academic Mariinsky Theatre

The Tarkovsky production goes for extravagantly colourful and varied period costumes within a single massive, rather unfeatured set, both the work of designer Nikolai Dvigubsky, an approach which has its pros and cons. On the one hand, it makes for swift scene changes and it allows the chorus to be moved around into all sorts of interesting three dimensional tableaux. On the other, it does little to conjure up the atmosphere of the opera’s widely different locations: the same set is being used for the Square in front of the Kremlin, the tavern by the Lithuanian border or the inner rooms of Boris’s royal apartments. The costumes are lavish and striking, but it’s asking a lot of them to provide such radically different shifts in atmosphere, and generally dark lighting very much subdues the crowd scenes.

An uneven performance, in sum: the sense of Russianness was certainly there as hoped for, there were vocal moments to remember and some of Mussorgsky’s broad brush strokes were strongly rendered, but too many fell foul of an over-enthusiastic orchestra.