The Royal Opera House
Music Director – Sir Antonio Pappano
Director of Opera – Kasper Holten
Boris Godunov – Opera In Seven Scenes (Original Version) ( Борис Годунов)
Music – Modest Petrovich Musorgsky (Модест Петрович Мусоргский)
Libretto – Modest Petrovich Musorgsky adapted from the historical tragedy by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (Алекса́ндр Серге́евич Пу́шкин)
The edition of Boris Godunov used in the performances is published by Verlagsgruppe Hermann, edited by Michael Rot.
Performed by arrangement with Alkor-Edition Kassel and Faber Music Ltd, London.
Conductor – Antonio Pappano
Director – Richard Jones
Set Designer – Miriam Buether
Costume Designer – Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting Designer – Mimi Jordan Sherin
Movement Director – Ben Wright
Associate Director – Elaine Kidd
Royal Opera Chorus
Chorus Director – Renato Balsadonna
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Concert master – Peter Manning
Directed for the Screen by Jonathan Haswell
Live from the Royal Opera House:
Monday 21 March 2016, 7.15PM
(Supported using the public funding by Arts Council England)
After the death of Ivan the Terrible the boyar Boris Godunov was appointed regent – Ivan’s older son, Tsar Fyodor, was physically and mentally frail, and his younger son Dmitry was an infant. Dmitry died mysteriously at the age of eight; many believed Boris had arranged his murder. Now Fyodor is dead, and with no direct heir to the throne, Boris is the most likely candidate to be the next Tsar.
Boris has retreated to a monastry. A crowd gather outside and entreat him to accept the throne. Shchelkalov, clerk of the Boyar’s Council, tells the crowd that Boris is reluctant to rule.
Boris is crowned Tsar in the Kremlin and his coronation is hailed by the people.
Years pass. Boris proves to be a good and wise ruler, and a devoted father. Under his rule Russia prospers. Then, unexpectedly, the country is visited by dreadful famines. The superstitious believe this is a divine punishment, visited on Boris for the murder of the Tsarevich Dmitry.
In the monastery within the Kremlin, the monk Pimen is interrupted by the young novice Grigory, who has had a nightmare. Grigory asks Pimen to talk about Russia’s past. Pimen talks of Ivan the Terrible, of the saintliness of Ivan’s son Fyodor, and of the murder of the Tsarevich Dmitry. On hearing that Dmitry resembles him and was about the same age, Grigory formulates a plan to impersonate the Tsarevich, and stir up rebellion.
Grigory (now in secular clothes) comes to an inn near the Lithuanian border, with the monks Varlaam and Missail. The Frontier Guard arrives, searching for Grigory, and carrying an edict for his arrest. Grigory realizes that the Guard cannot read and doesn’t know what he looks like, and so reads out the edict, describing the monk as resembling Varlaam, rather than himself. Varlaam protests his innocence and reads the edict correctly. Grigory escapes.
In the Tsar’s apartments, Xenia laments the early death of her fiance, while her brother Fyodor studies a map of Russia. Boris meditates on what he has achieved since he came to power. Prince Shuisky arrives with news that a pretender, calling himself the Tsarevich Dmitry, has appeared in Lithuania. Boris orders Shuisky to seal the border, and demands reassurance that Dmitry really did die. Shuisky describes Dmitry’s murder, but hints that the Tsarevich’s dead body may have miraculous powers. Boris, frightened, orders Shuisky to leave and, giving way to guilt and remorse, hallucinates that he can see the dead Dmitry.
Outside St Basil’s Cathedral, the crowd are talking about the pretender Grishka (Grigory) Otrepiev. A holy Fool sings a nonsensical song, and some urchins steal a penny [kopeck] from him. Boris and his retinue leave the Cathedral, and the hungry crowd beg for bread. The Holy Fool suggests that Boris should order the murder of the thieving urchins, just as he ordered the murder of the Tsarevich Dmitiry. Shuisky demands that the Holy Fool be arrested, but Boris instead asks the Holy Fool to pray for him. The Holy Fool refuses to pray for ‘Tsar Herod’ and laments the fate of Russia.
At the Kremlin, the Boyar’s Council agree that Grigory and his followers should be executed. Shuisky reports that Boris claims to have seen the dead Tsarevich Dmitry and is deeply troubled. Boris appears, still in the grip of his hallucination. Pimen enters and tells Boris that the Tsarevich Dmitry has become a saint from beyond the grave and cured an old man’s blindness. Boris collapses in a seizure. He calls for his son Fyodor, bids the boy farewell and calls for God’s blessing on his children. He names Fyodor the heir to the throne, begs forgiveness and dies.
Boris Godunov – Bryn Terfyl
Andrey Shchelkov (Clerk of the Boyar’s Council) – Kostas Smoriginas
Nikitich (A Police Officer) – Jeremy White
Mityukha (A Peasant) – Adrian Clarke
Prince Vasily Ivanovich Shuisky – John Graham-Hall
Pimen (A Monk and Chronicler) – Ain Anger
Grigory Otrepiev (Later ‘The False Dmitry) – David Butt Philip
Hostess of the Inn – Rebecca De Pont Davies
Varlaam (Monk) – John Tomlinson
Missail (Monk) – Harry Nicoll
Frontier Guard – James Platt
Xenia’s Nurse – Sarah Pring
Fyodor (Boris Godunov’s Son) – Ben Knight
Boyar – Nicholas Sales
Yorodivy (Holy Fool) – Andrew Tortise
Russian populace, Boyars, Soldiers, Pilgrims – Ensemble
The opera lasts approximately two hours, ten minutes.
There is no interval.
The production ‘realistically’ depicts and revisits the murder of the young crown prince (Tsarevich) Dmitry. They advise that it is not suitable for children under the age of 12 years old.
Above is the information, with a few alterations, you are provided at a cinema screening.
Staging: The stage is divided into two halves. on the upper level is the golden prayer/coronation chamber. This is also where the murder occurs. The lower, darker grey, level is where most events occur and has some large mobile scenery which can be moved in and out to change scenes.
There are to the rear three moving raised platforms used by the chorus when they are dressed in traditional robes during the coronation scene and on one or two other parts. The smaller props include a yellow painted chair to represent the Imperial Throne, a bar set used during the inn scene and two manuscript scenery pieces which were very impressive. The first is during scene 3 where we see the manuscript Pimen has been writing with large illustrations of the previous Tsars. Watching this in cinema you get a close up view of the areas where they wipe the paint/ink clean after each performance where Pimen writes in Cyrillic during this scene.
The backgrounds for the upper section consist of 3 windows with are back lit. They display, depending on the scene, three bells for the monastery scenes or are unlit for those in the Imperial palace. This was minimal, but very effective, to allow an economy of staging. My only crticism would be that this upper part, unlike the lower level, seemed to have no depth and so the Boyars who walk back and forth seem very cramped and almost like characters from a 2D computer game marching back and forth during some scenes. Perhaps this area is meant to represent Boris’ inner mindscape as the murder of Dmitry is repeated her a number of times but I can only imagine the issues this alcove causes for any audiences who do not have a clear line of sight to it in the theatre.
On the lower section, after Boris’ coronation any interior scenes have the background host a line of icons of the Tsar otherwise the background is unlit and in the case of Scene 3 light is projected through the right doorway to indicate the low lighting of the monastery’s interior. On the provided simple illustration I indicate the door ways with green lines to either side of the staging. There is also a rail on the upper level and at one point one of the performers holds it with such force it rattles which was amusing but also a safety concern.
Costume: This to me was the weakest point by far. There is an odd mix of traditional clothing and more modern clothing but is set in the sixteenth and first few years of the seventeenth century. I wish they had gone in one direction or the other. Of course you have the detailed golden robes of the coronation but throughout the rest of the production you have modern clothing hinting at tradition which feels ill at ease e.g. ‘grandfather collared shirts and women in headscarves, patterns on material which is distinctly Slavic contrasting with Boyars dressed in burgundy trousers with grey blazers which distinctly are no earlier than the mid twentieth century in design.
Accessibility: This is a very good opera but also very dense to the point the fourth scene feels almost completely out of place in its efforts to offer some small effort towards a respite from the intensity. As you might have noted this is Mussorgsky’s original version and although I have not seen the adjustments by Rimsky-Korsakov, to amend perceived weaknesses, might have served to make it more palatable to a general audience those the variations have fallen out of favour so Mussorgsky’s individual harmonic style and orchestration can be valued for their originality. The music is very heavy so I would suggest anyone who like the works of composers like Puccini and have not experienced ‘heavier’ orchestrations best listen to some pieces on YouTube to see if it would be to their taste. Anyone familiar with Wagner will probably be fine. For those familiar with Rimsky-Korsakov’s alterations I would be interested to hear how you view this original draft of the opera – especially in comparison to his own works. Mussorgsky has other, unfinished works, and I would like to hear them but I am of a mind that perhaps he found the form of opera something very troublesome and despite his best efforts never truly felt at ease with it.
Subject matter: If you are not familiar with Russian history you best read the brief synopsis of the scenes so you can keep up with what is happening as there are some big jumps in time at the start.
It is best to bear in mind that this opera is based upon Pushkin’s tragedy.
Pushkin wrote of his play:
“The study of Shakespeare, Karamzin, and our old chronicles gave me the idea of clothing in dramatic forms one of the most dramatic epochs of our history. Not disturbed by any other influence, I imitated Shakespeare in his broad and free depictions of characters, in the simple and careless combination of plots; I followed Karamzin in the clear development of events; I tried to guess the way of thinking and the language of the time from the chronicles. Rich sources! Whether I was able to make the best use of them, I don’t know — but at least my labors were zealous and conscientious.”
So in context what we are watching is heavily influenced by the writers of each period assimilating and adapting the works of others. Therefore with each stage comes a divergence from reality and an embrace of the romaticised notion of a historical figure. With the mention of Shakespeare there is too obvious a comparison to made here. This opera is the equivalent of an operatic version of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’. The central character does not realistically represent the historical figure but a caricature. No more obvious is the parable like nature of this work than when the Holy Fool, Yorodivy, tells Boris he cannot pray for him as that would make the Virgin Mary sad. In Russia there is the fairy tale figure of Ivan the Fool (Иван-дурак or diminutive Иванушка-дурачок). The moral of these stories is that Ivan The Fool is rarely the fool, he is merely perceived as such by others owing to his simple nature and joviality. It is by being a fool, in this tradition, Yorodivy alone is allowed to state what others may not and is ultimately the final nail confirming to Boris his guilt is not only his own but one endorsed by society’s perception of him.
Despite Russia prospering under his rule he is only judged by one act: the sin of murder. He was a good ruler for the country as a whole but for its people he is a figure or fear – a man who would go so far to have power he would murder an innocent child. He is a tragic figure for whom repentance has been denied.
The murder of Dmitry is reprised a few times during the play. This consists of a short actor in an oversized papermache head having a knife drawn across his throat by three assassins and he smears a blood packet across his chest to denote the murder. If you watch this in cinema you will see it up close and it begins to look more comical the more they reprise it. That is not intentional. Part of me wishes they had just had Boris’ son play this role also as it seems this productions intention to mirror the two roles to indicate how, now with a son on his own, Boris feels greater guilt than ever for the murder. The murder is in and of itself not visceral but i understand why they have been cautious enough, in these days where even a ‘U’ rated film has to carry warning of ‘mild peril’ why they have included the warning about the graphic nature of the murder.
Conclusion: This is not an ‘introductory level’ opera. If you want something easy to follow then go check out Puccini or Bizet. If you have dealt with composers like Mahler or Wagner then try it but realise it has its awkward moments. The entire cast does well. There are a number of very impressive performances here but Ain Anger as Pimen steals every scene he is in, Rebecca De Pont Davies is a one act wonder with her bug eyed performance as the Hostess of the Inn and the solos provided by members of the ensemble each stand on their own. If I had one criticism, apart from the costume designs, it is that the preamble VT featured Bryn Terfyl talking about, as a Welsh speaker from North Wales, he finds it hard to do a Russian ‘L’ sound and for the rest of the performance that is all I could focus on with him. It reminded me of a time when I read an Oxford Press foreword for Turgenev’s ‘Father and Sons’ where Richard Freeborn in his introductory essay gave away major plot points including which characters died and so I couldn’t bring myself to read it. It was just to big a distraction. This is a heavy opera but if you are willing to stay with it you might find it to be a tour de force and something very different from the yearly repeated performances of lighter works.
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