Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Boris Godunov @ Coliseum, London

10, 13, 15, 19, 21, 24, 26, 29 Nov, 1 Dec 2008

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: ENO)

With its uncompromising view of Russian history and her people, Boris Godunov makes for a challenging evening in the theatre. This is especially so when it is given in Mussorgsky’s original 1869 seven-scene version as presented here by ENO for the first time.

The bleakness of the score is matched in Tim Albery’s thoughtful and measured new staging. As the opera was rejected by the Maryinsky Opera, Mussorgsky revised the opera in 1871, adding a so-called love interest and substantially changing some scenes. Deciding on a performing version becomes more complicated as several composers, most notably Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich, re-orchestrated the work to make it more palatable to Western tastes. The revised version tends to sprawl but is more epic in tone, whereas the version chosen here by ENO is stark and concise.

Having chosen this version, it’s hard to imagine a better staging of it than Tim Albery provides. Tobias Hoheisel has designed a versatile wooden box of a set which opens up at the back to reveal a cyclorama, all wonderfully enhanced by Adam Silverman’s evocative lighting. Within this framework Albery directs with a sure hand and as we have come to expect from him, his handling of chorus is faultless. Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes don’t anchor the work to any particular era although the look and feel of the production is traditional’ yet remains fresh, provocative and engaging.

If memory serves me well, Francesca Zambello’s previous production for ENO was more thrilling and epic in scale but there again she was directing a different version of the score. Albery’s production ends with the death of Boris, whereas Zambello’s added the Kromy Forest scene which shifts the focus of the work back to the Russian people. If you’re going to make Boris the lynchpin of the performance, as opposed to the chorus, you need a singing-actor of the highest caliber who can carry the weight of the work on his shoulders, but unfortunately Peter Rose falls wide of the mark.

Rose is a great singer in the right role, but here he is horribly miscast, with neither the dignity of bearing nor the right kind of voluminous bass voice that the role calls for. Boris should be a haunted, tragic figure and any singer taking on the role should have the power to dominate the entire opera, even when he’s not appearing on stage. Ten years ago, John Tomlinson had such qualities in spades but Rose failed to move or dominate, so the evening was left with a gaping hole at its centre, causing the opera to drag. Rose was more troubled bank-manager, than tortured Tsar.

The supporting cast was good, with Brindley Sherratt especially notable as Pimen. Edward Gardner conducted a wonderfully detailed account of the score and the playing was good rather than inspired. The augmented chorus sang with gusto, so all in all this was a good company show, but in desperate need of a mesmeric protagonist.

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Boris Godunov @ Coliseum, London