“Boris Godunov” by Modest Mussorgsky,Live from Covent Garden Mon March 21st at 7.15pm.
In October 2010 we had a memorable “Boris Godunov” Live from New York’s Met – one of the greatest experiences of my opera-going life. Conducted by the great Russian, Valery Gergiev, and with the magnificent Rene Pape as an unforgettable Boris, it was a spellbinding evening at the opera. It was powerful and enthralling from beginning to end. The beautiful music and the drama of Shakespearean intensity and the massive panorama of Russian life were a joy. “Boris” has some of the greatest crowd scenes in all opera.
The role of Boris provides a new and huge challenge for the great Welshman, Bryn Terfel. I’ve seen him in the theatre in a number of roles, and I’ve never seen him give a poor performance and I believe he is ready for this Everest of a role as the conscience-stricken, tormented Tsar.
The role of Boris will forever be linked with the great early to mid-twentieth century Russian bass, Feodor Chaliapin, whose performances in the role became legendary. As one of the great actor-singers of all time, he captivated audiences, while his portrayal of Boris’ death-scene was one of the great moments in opera. The opera, which had as its source a play by Pushkin, centres on the belief that Boris had murdered the heir to the throne, the young Tsarevich, Dmitri, in order to gain the crown. When the throne becomes vacant, Boris is in a monastery but when the people beg him to become Tsar he agrees to their request. He reigned for only seven years, from 1598 to 1605 – but ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ and his troubles are only beginning. His terrible self-recriminating hallucinations have the power of Shakespeare at his greatest (one immediately thinks of the way Macbeth loses his self-possession at the banquet scene when Banquo’s ghost comes back to haunt him). It has been said of Macbeth that his mental anguish is particularly great because his conscience works through his imagination; and Joseph Conrad described imagination as the father of all terrors. So it is with Boris whose inner disintegration provides some of the most harrowing moments in all theatre.
Some years after Boris’ coronation, violence and famine stalk the land. A young monk, Grigory, calls himself Dmitri and pretends to be the heir to the throne; he makes plans to march on Moscow. Boris becomes increasingly anguished ….
There are at least seven versions of this opera (it’s probably the most ‘messed-about with’ opera ever composed) and Covent Garden is presenting the earliest and most compact 1869 version (which I haven’t seen) – it has just seven scenes.
If Terfel succeeds in his assumption of this mammoth role, one of the most searching in terms of voice and acting in all opera, we should have an evening to remember. He has some great supporting singers in John Graham-Hill as Prince Shuisky and John Tomlinson as the monk, Varlaam, and with Antonio Pappano at the podium, I expect Terfel to overcome all abstacles and send us home happy.
Denis Forman says that “a good production of ‘Boris’ is an event in the life of any operagoer … It is one of the great monuments of nineteenth-century Russian art … An Alpha”.
It’s an opera of Shakespearean proportions and with a great ‘Boris’ it’s an occasion not to be missed.