Ivan the Terrible curbed the power of the boyars, surrounding himself with reliable, talented men such as Boris Godunov. Following Ivan’s death, while Godunov was regent to the weak-minded Fyodor, a later son and potential heir, Dmitri, died in slightly mysterious circumstances. With the death of Fyodor, Boris was proclaimed Tsar and his opponent and senior boyar Shuisky led an independent enquiry into the death, concluding it was accidental. But that didn’t stop Pushkin from portraying Boris as a murderer whose ensuing guilt and remorse are vital to this Musorgsky opera.
Before the orchestra starts up, this production shows a silent mime of a boy playing with a spinning top and having his throat cut by three assassins. The mime gets repeated when Boris’s mind turns to thoughts of his own guilt, yet despite the boy’s death pretenders appeared, and a scheming young novice Grigory makes his way to Lithuania to raise an army, intending to make himself known as Dmitri and take the throne.
This production uses Musorgsky’s vibrant, original 1869 version, whose initial rejection impelled him to produce a revised version in a more conventional operatic style. Rimsky-Korsakov later reworked and re-orchestrated it, as did other composers and musical scholars, and these revised versions were usually performed until a very successful staging of the original at Tallinn in 1980 showed how powerful the original could be. Released from its later more Western trappings, this quintessentially Russian music contains superb choral writing, and the Royal Opera chorus fully rose to the occasion.
So did the principals and soloists, with several singers returning to the roles they performed when this illuminating Richard Jones production was new in 2016. Again Bryn Terfel was magnificent as a powerfully sympathetic and well-nuanced Boris, with David Butt Philip giving a mean performance as the novice Grigory (Dmitri the pretender). When he arrives at the Lithuanian border with two rogue monks, the wonderful stage presence and bass depth of John Tomlinson as Varlaam, and a delightful Harry Nicoll as Missail playing the spoons, in one of the few lighter moments of this opera.
New to the role of Pimen was Matthew Rose who conveyed firm depth as this worthy chronicler, as did Russian bass Boris Pinkhasovich as clerk to the Boyars’ Council. As the holy fool, Sam Furness (an excellent novice in the recent Billy Budd) showed appropriate anxiety and a mellow vocal line, Young Artist Haegee Lee delivered a lovely, gentle cameo as Boris’s daughter Xenia, and Joshua Abrams was very effective as his young son Fyodor.
Sets, costumes and lighting emphasise the stark difference between the world of the boyars and ordinary folk, and the orchestra under Marc Albrecht, chief conductor of the Dutch National Opera helped elicit what historian Lev Gumilev has called Russia’s passionarnost.
Until July 3 — see details.