Time must have been on the minds of much of the audience attending the first night of the Kirov Opera’s week-long residence at the Royal Opera House. For one thing, there’s the incessant sound of bells permeating through Mussorgsky’s score of Boris Godunov (here given in its 1869 version), a constant reminder of the passage of time and human mortality.
And on a more practical level, the fact that the entire opera was to be given without an interval – all 2 hours 20 minutes of it in this shorter original version – was on the lips of many of the assembling spectators. However, the evening went by in a surprising flash, thanks to a dedicated performance by nearly all concerned. Leading the show in more ways than one was Valery Gergiev. Not only is he the Artistic and General Manager of the Mariinsky Theatre (home to the Kirov) and the conductor of all seven of this week’s performances, but he was given joint credit for the Stage Conception for this production of Boris with George Tsypin, the set designer.
Between them they have created a largely satisfying production which conjures up the gloom of oppressed Russia really well (though the huge mechanical spider in the death scene was bizarrely out of place). The stage is often left with a black backdrop in the far distance, so that the acting space is cavernous in the crowd scenes. For the more intimate moments, such as the Inn scene, isolated pieces of scenery provide enough evocation of place, frequently to symbolic effect. For instance, the stools in the Inn resemble coffins, showing that death is all around. Another great piece of scenery is the cage on wheels in which the Simpleton seems at first to be trapped as society’s outcast. Yet by the end of his single scene, when he has spoken the truth about the murderous Tsar Boris’ accession to power, it becomes clear that the cage is the Simpleton’s protection from the corrupt people, who are under the Tsar’s influence.
Another cage, though a grander one, surrounded Vladimir Vaneev as Boris for much of the time, this time a genuine symbol of the character’s moral suffocation. Despite the fulfilment of Godunov’s ambition to become Tsar, he is a deeply troubled man. When a man shows up pretending to be Dmitri, the true heir to the throne, whom Boris believes to have been killed, the latter hallucinates about his crime in terror – and dies. The journey of the character’s torture was acted with brilliance by Vaneev, and though some of his early singing was underpowered it was always noble and thoughtful – and his death scene was sung with great poignancy.
The Kirov revels in this kind of opera, which is filled with lots of small but important roles, thereby allowing this old-fashioned style of ensemble to use its full resources. Pimen, the monk and chronicler who has written the history of Russia, was sung with conviction by Sergei Alexashkin, whilst the plotting Shuisky, who effectively brings about Boris’ downfall in a Iago-type manner, was both sung and acted with devilment by Alexei Steblianko. Grigory Otrepiev, who starts off as a monk and ends up as the Pretender Dmitri, was the outstanding Oleg Balashov, and the Simpleton was eerily played by Evgeny Akimov. Varlaam and Missail, two wandering monks, were brought to life in a rare moment of comedy in this tragic opera, by Gennady Bezzubenkov and Viktor Vikhrov.
Despite the odd weak link, the rest of the cast was mostly adequate, some much more, some practically decrepit. Yet the main protagonist of this story is not Boris but the Russian People, and the Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre helped make this a powerful performance. Valery Gergiev was the force which held it all together though, dragging out every possible drop of emotion. It sagged once or twice, but this is a difficult work to perform in the first place, and the chance to hear Mussorgsky’s original orchestration instead of Rimsky-Korsakov’s later version is surely unmissable.