Image borrowed from arts.guardian.co.uk

Image borrowed from arts.guardian.co.uk

For those of the audience with a thing for basses, this was a very happy day (I went to the matinee performance). Lots of lovely dark Russian basses, one after another, only occasionally punctuated by a bit of high voice stuff. Actually, having said that, I did like Vitaly Taraschenko, the tenor playing Grigory/Impostor. An unusual timbre to the voice, but I find it hard to describe these things more precisely. On the dark side, and maybe a little baritone-y, and with a firm attack to the notes. Tatiana Erastova was excellent too as Marina; very powerful and rich-sounding, although her vibrato was about a major 3rd wide.

The production was a traditional one which the Bolshoi have apparently been using since 1948, and used the 4-act Rimsky-Korsakov-orchestrated version of the music. Personally I would have thought that if one wanted to shorten this opera, a better choice of cut would be the stupid songs about gnats and various woodland creatures. Especially the Innkeeper’s song about her beloved duck.

The running time was advertised as 4 hours but it overran by about half an hour. This may have had something to do with the many infuriatingly long scene changes that took place; unfortunately only some of them were worth it. To be fair, Boris’s palace was pretty stunning, and the court in the Polish act was eye-catching and had elegant staircases. The painted backdrop representing the inn was naff, though, and more appropriate for a school play. The costumes were similarly varied: Boris, Boyars, royals and the people in the cathedral had huge elaborate embroidered affairs which were very effective (although looked very hot and heavy), but others fared less well, particularly Grigory in his bright orange pudding-bowl wig. Marina was also positively encrusted in glittering stage jewellery on shiny satin, to my eye more appropriate for a pantomime or drag queen.

The orchestra and chorus were generally of a very high standard, although occasionally not quite together. Alexander Vedernikov conducted, and the brass and percussion were seriously giving it some. The woodwind often seemed to be going for quite a soft-edged sound which to my ears was slightly woolly, but which is presumably their stylistic preference. The principals were all very good too – Mikhail Kazakov was a powerful Boris with a rich, deep bass voice and a convincing actor in the mad scenes. I was smitten with his voice by about 3 notes in, and he sang particularly well in the death scene. On the subject of which, his death was quite impressive, as rather than just buckle and go down knees first, or fall back into a convenient armchair (as did Riccardo in Ballo last year), Kazakov fell from a standing position to his back, on the stairs, sliding down a few steps in the process; a bit unfortunate really, as I imagine many people were not thinking about dead Boris, but the poor singer who’d just clumped down on his back on some stairs, and whether it had hurt him.

Shuisky (Maxim Paster) was nice enough but he could have done with turning the volume up a bit. This was not a problem with Varlaam (Valery Gilmanov), who, apart from an excellent sense of comic timing, had possibly the hugest voice I’ve ever heard on this stage. I do wonder what he’d be like in a bigger and non-comedy role; one can hope he returns sometime. I should also note that I wasn’t at all bored during Pimen’s long monologues, as I imagine one might be with a lesser singer than Taras Shtonda in the role.
I’m actually now very interested to hear the original Mussorgsky orchestration in order to make a comparison. Not that the Rimsky didn’t sound great, but I want to hear the two together to compare. I expect I will like both.

[Thanks to FayeXX for making notes on this performance, which aided my memory when writing this.]