The main selling point of Richard Jones’s new production of Boris Godunov for the Royal Opera is that it presents the original 1869 version in its entirety. This is important because, as far as I know, London has had only two opportunities to experience this in recent years when the Mariinsky Opera brought it to the Proms in 2002 and the Barbican Hall in 2014. Although Francesca Zambello’s English National Opera production of 1998 essentially presented the earlier piece, it inserted the closing scene from the later version, while a Proms performance from Opera North in 1992 just couldn’t resist giving John Tomlinson the 1872 monologue to sing in the Kremlin apartments scene.
The joy of experiencing the 1869 version lies in the fact that it enables us to witness those elements of Musorgsky’s creation that are missing from the later incarnation. For example, the people being shown as indifferent to the will of the authorities at the end of Scene I was cut to avoid offending the censor, but the episode’s inclusion is useful in revealing much about the Russian character. Similarly, Pimen’s intimate description of the murder of the Tsarevich was removed, presumably because it was felt to be too exposing of the regime, but it contributes much to the drama and chill of the narrative.
Although the changes were largely forced upon Musorgsky, he was in some ways happy to produce a second version because he relished the opportunity to achieve a new generosity of line in Boris’s vocal part. Nevertheless, although it is true that his monologues in the earlier version feel somewhat drier, they are worth experiencing for the development of several brooding orchestral themes, with the ‘leitmotifs’ clarifying the strands of the Tsar’s political thought, personal reflection and private torment.
One of the most striking aspects of this new production is just how well each singer’s voice suits that of the character being portrayed. Amidst a plethora of very strong performances, Bryn Terfel in the title role stands as the first among equals. His firm bass-baritone is possessed of some thrilling darker hues that really come to the fore as guilt and madness overwhelm the Tsar. Ain Anger as Pimen has a richness to his bass that renders him replete with all the wisdom and weariness that come with old age. As Shuisky John Graham-Hall’s tenor speaks of calculation and fear, while as Yurodivy Andrew Tortise’s relatively light and certainly pleasing voice contrasts with Terfel’s own to highlight the irony in the fact that a fool is capable of confronting and belittling a Tsar. Sir John Tomlinson has the robustness of voice, as well as the acting skills, to carry off the part of Varlaam with aplomb, while Sir Antonio Pappano’s conducting achieves a fine balance between charge and sensitivity.
Miriam Buether’s set creates a box-like area, with a second storey embedded in the back wall standing above the main stage. Although it feels minimalist overall, a wealth of details to be found within it and the entire set is covered with a bell motif that emphasises their prominence in the score, the opera and Russian life more generally. Similarly, the two storeys serve to highlight different ‘realities’, whether this be the realms of the rulers above and the masses below, or through the playing out of Boris’s past deeds and present nightmares in the upper space.
It falls short of a vintage staging because its clear attempt to universalise the opera’s themes can, by the same token, impede our ability to believe in the reality of one single scenario unfolding before our eyes. Nevertheless, the set creates a spacious and uncluttered area that enables the (brilliant) chorus to confront us en masse, and individual characters to dominate while also giving us some sense of being lost souls. The fact that Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes would appear to cover the period 1613 to 1917 also brings home Jones’s point that what we see before is was what happened to Tsars more generally. In this respect, the opera’s final image is not so much presenting a new twist to the ending of this particular story as emphasising the cyclical nature of the scenario we have just seen unfold.
There are also many excellent touches. The apparition of the dead Tsarevich that Godunov believes he sees during his Scene V monologue is represented merely by a spinning top, which is a recurring motif throughout the evening. Similarly, as Terfel sings here, huge menacing shadows of him are cast on the walls suggesting that it is Godunov’s own demons who are closing in on him. Pimen’s chronicle is also represented visually with four giant pages of it standing upright, each one describing a different Tsar. The penultimate page reveals Boris and the final one bears an unfinished picture of the dead Tsarevich Dmitry, which looks very much like Grigory. This helps to add weight to the idea that when Pimen invites Grigory to write the rest of the story, the latter interprets this as meaning something other than merely chronicling the events that unfold.
Boris Godunov will be broadcast live to selected cinemas in the UK and worldwide at 7.15pm on 21 March, while some cinemas will also show encore screenings over subsequent days. For details of participating venues visit the Royal Opera House Live Cinema Season website.