Boris Godunov

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The world of opera is unique. For some it is an acquired taste; to others something lengthy and loaded with absurdities. And then there are those of us who attend as if acolytes of a religion. Last night’s performance of “Boris Godunov” by Mussorgsky at the Royal Opera House was an epiphany of near perfection. Antonio Pappano, the musical director of the Royal Opera House, chose to produce Mussorgsky’s original production, which is one long act exploring the theme of political power. What it takes to get it, how to keep it, how you lose it, which seems very apposite in these troubled times. The music is a result of the search on the part of Russian composers to find a national sound, music that evokes their nation’s convoluted, but rich history.

Bryn Terfel, the great bass/baritone of his generation, sings Boris as a man of principle and talent whose reign is built on a crime, the murder of the previous Tsaravitch. His reign has been successful, but as happens in politics, problems loom. In addition to the demands of the long suffering Russian people, there are the demands of Boris’s conscience. He has children himself, and this knowledge exacerbates his guilt, his remorse over the murder of the young heir in order to take the Crown. He is beset by mental images, which the director Richard Jones makes material on a platform overhead. Over and over again, masked ninja-like figures assassinate the innocent child. Jones uses his modernist sensibility to illustrate this act in all its brutality.

In the meantime, Boris’s mind becomes more anguished. We watch Terfel battle with his boyars (early Duma types), a looming false Pretender to the Throne and his own demons. Terfel’s voice is powerful and bittersweet as well. We are sucked into a vortex of mental and even physical suffering. The magnificent music is in every sense expressive of his inner torture, and we are brought to tears by the human conflicts and the magnificence of performance. John Tomlinson, a great Wagnerian, sings Varlaam, the tipsy Monk with humor and pathos. John Graham-Hall as Prince Shuysky is an insinuating manipulative player. The chorus is magnificent. The conducting was sublime. It has been filmed; do see it if you can.

Kaaren Hale

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