Richard Jones’ new production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov opens with the stylistic murder of young Dmitry, the only obstacle between Godunov and the titular character’s chance to become Tsar. Highlighted by Miriam Buether’s fascinating bisected set design – with an illuminated hallway above and stage below – this slow-paced and strangely dreamlike act of violence sets the mood for a psychological thriller rather than the predictable backstabbing and scheming that usually lurks around every corner.
Jones manages to keep up the sense of unease and unrest throughout the show, and he has his work cut out for him with this original, 1869 version of Mussorgsky’s work. It seems no sooner have we been introduced to one set of problems, then another pops up, threatening to run off with the narrative. We’re kept on track in no small part by the stark set and surprisingly plain costumes. What is lost in lavish scene changes because of the immovable hallway above, makes up for it by allowing the stage to stay stark and unwelcoming; to feel lonely even when the entire chorus is present. An apt metaphor for how Godunov must feel clinging to a throne he obtained through child murder, a scene that is deliriously replayed above his head almost every time he makes an appearance. Still, it is Bryn Terfel who brings Boris Godunov to life.
With blood on his hands and many good reasons for paranoia, Godunov could easily become a mad, power hungry beast. Terfel though gives him a sensitive depth. We see a man racked with guilt over his past deeds, a man who loves his family, a man as easily capable of compassion as he is bloodshed. Even in Godunov’s eventual descent into madness, Terfel gives us a complete character and an incredibly emotional death scene, making this character his own. Even his bass-baritone voice over the traditional bass for the role gave this Godunov a heart breaking uniqueness Terfel can claim for his own.
Even with Terfel at the heart of this performance, the cast and chorus around him shine as well. John Tomlinson definitely garnered attention as the amusing Varlaam and Ain Anger in the role of Pimen could not be ignored. The execution of Mussorgsky’s original score was deftly executed by conductor Antonio Pappano as well. It’s obvious everyone who came together for this opera was extremely talented, but there were points when this production found itself in danger of isolating it’s audience.
While the murder of the child Dmitry to facilitate Godunov’s rise to power became haunting after a number of repetitions, I couldn’t help but notice a a ripple of nervous titters as it first happened. The highly symbolic staging of the crime had what looked like three ninjas murdering a doll-headed boy. It was clear the audience was unsure what to make of it until the repetitions started. Things like the bright yellow hallway above the grey scenery below, the overly large bells, and people laid out in obvious skeleton suits, all walked a fine line between conveying a sense of unease and unreality or simply losing the audience’s suspension of disbelief completely. Something no one wants to happen in the middle of a two hour show with no interval.
Boris Godunov is playing The Royal Opera House until 5 April 2016. For more information and tickets, see The Royal Opera House
Photo: Catherine Ashmore