The announcement in the Royal Opera House’s previous season that Bryn Terfel would be taking on the title role of Boris Godunov for the first time with Antonio Pappano conducting drew a great deal of attention and after some initial performances, there were some who thought that Terfel had become the Boris of our time. After a gap of several months, Terfel and most of the cast from the original production moved across to the Royal Albert Hall to give a concert staging, with monastic habits, jewelled crowns and best of all, not a single score in sight. The 1869 version was again used instead of the more conventional 1874 version, and while there’s plenty in there that makes the opera in this form well worth hearing, I can’t help sympathising with the committees of Imperial Russia who missed the balance of a substantial female role. That said though, the absence of the ‘Polish Act’ does allow for a greater psychological focus on Boris without extraneous distraction, which has its obvious dramatic advantages.

Bryn Terfel (Boris Godunov) © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Bryn Terfel (Boris Godunov)
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Bryn Terfel’s return to Boris felt comfortable and it is to be hoped that the role remains in his standard repertoire as his interpretation has plenty of individuality. One does miss, at times, the sort of sound that the pure basses of Boris Christoff, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Martti Talvela produced, but the softness of Terfel’s bass-baritone lends a new dimension to the character which Terfel takes advantage of – introspective, tortured and self-doubting, but still with a nobility to him: there were moments when his Boris reminded me of his interpretation of the Dutchman in Der fliegende Holländer, sung with the same meditative air. Terfel did not really suffer in the perilous space of the Albert Hall, only once struggling when battling with orchestra from the rear of the hall; his tone was clearly still as rich as ever, the voice changing at the famous death scene into an instrument of ethereal beauty. Watching that heroic frame shudder and curve from the distance of my seat, there were constant reminders of how totally Terfel embodies his greatest roles.

David Butt Philip’s scheming Grigory continued the trend for softness of voice; his tenor was unforced and had a refreshing greenness to it that energised his performance. His monastic mentor, Pimen, was impressively and tirelessly sung by Ain Anger, whose bass was unwaveringly steady, movingly articulated and thrillingly dark. The power and the projection Anger brought to the role, combined with total appreciation for the text and the language made him a scene-stealer. John Graham-Hall gave a reptilian, inveigling Prince Shuisky; his smooth, clear tenor was well suited to the role, and his experience with the part was obvious, though his voice was sometimes a little lost in the space of the hall.

Andrew Tortise’s portrayal of the Simpleton was noticeable in the original production; here, the same luminous tenor was deployed; simply, but at the same time, with such careful shaping that the result was a remarkable piece of artistry for such a small role. Diction was very good and there’s plenty of agility to the voice. I don’t know how much research Tortise did before assuming the role in the original run, but his assumption of severe autism was totally authentic and heart-wrenching. Varlaam was well served by Andrii Goniukov’s broad, hearty bass; Sir John Tomlinson, who sang the part in the spring, was one of the few cast members from the original production not to be singing in this performance. The young Ben Knight gave us a Fyodor, whose voice was slightly distorted by his justifiable sound amplification, but showed nonetheless that he has a decent career ahead  with a well-acted and sweetly sung performance.

Sir Antonio Pappano © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sir Antonio Pappano
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Amongst the more minor roles, nods should go to Jeremy White’s police officer, Nikitich who opened the opera with a powerful, sonorous bass, and Vlada Borovko’s Xenia, the only female role in this version, whose warm soprano was given too little to sing.

Getting Bryn Terfel back to sing Boris wouldn’t have given quite as enjoyable an evening had he not been rejoined by Sir Antonio Pappano, who showed a profound and powerful understanding of the music. Pappano almost always brings out the best from the ROH’s orchestra and the playing here was impeccable; mastery of the score was clear. As for Renato Balsadonna’s chorus, they provided some spine-tingling moments, and the easy switch of personna – from crowd, to pilgrims et cetera – was reflected in the audible change in vocal colouring. That moment at the end of the prologue when the chorus is belting out praise to the new Tsar, “Mnogaya leta tsaryu Borisu!”, showed keen technical prowess. Their performance was an excellent tribute to the departing Balsadonna, who will be much missed.