Image by C Barda, borrowed from

Image by C Barda, borrowed from

This was the second time I’ve seen Boris live, the last being when the Bolshoi were visiting London in 2006. I have some basic level of familiarity with the score(s), but don’t actually own a full recording yet. [Suggestions welcome!] The Bolshoi used the Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration, whereas the ENO chose the original Mussorgsky, so I was interested to compare. The ENO version was also an awful lot shorter – by about half! – which, I have to say, didn’t seem like a particularly brilliant idea to me. I like huge operas that take up half the day, but I also like them to have intervals, which this didn’t. I read somewhere that this current trend for no-interval performances is “to make it more like the experience of going to see a film”. If this is true, it is patronising as well as irritating. And apparently very confusing for members of the audience who did not already know the opera. My companion had no idea what was going on for a lot of the time (as, for example, there was no actual indication that the Dmitri everyone is talking about at the end is the same person as the Grigory from earlier), and because of the lack of interval, had to wait until the whole thing had finished before asking me about it! Admittedly I think he did doze off for a bit, which can’t have helped.

So, no Poland scene, for a start. I could never really see the point of shoehorning in a romantic subplot anyway, but it did have some nice music in. No stupid gnat song for the nurse, but we were still treated to the bartender’s stupid duck song. I don’t know the score well enough to say exactly what else was missing, but whatever it was, surely it would have been better to include than 10 minutes of nasty little brats tormenting a poor learning disabled bloke, while making an irritating noise with their squeaky little voices.

I realise I am sounding somewhat negative about this production. Take it within the context that going to the opera is a treat for me, and I almost always find it enjoyable overall, or can at least find many things to enjoy in any performance. The thing I enjoyed most about this performance was Brindley Sherratt’s Pimen. It’s such an unforgiving role! No action, not much in the way of acting (other than looking old and venerable), and great long rambling monologues to narrate while sitting at a desk. However, Sherratt made such a lovely sound that I could quite happily have sat and listened to Pimen rambling on for three times as long. I haven’t heard him sing for some time, and it made me very happy to do so again. One of the things I like about this opera (and Russian vocal music in general) is the preponderance of bass voices, and we also had Jonathan Veira as Varlaam and Peter Rose as Boris himself. Veira was capable and entertaining in the sort of drunk fat old lech role that John Tomlinson excels at. Rose, unfortunately, was very unsatisfactory IMO; his voice was pleasant enough, and I’m sure in other roles he might be very good; however, the Tsar should be a tragic, tormented, but still powerful character, and his scenes should be gripping. I mean, he gets to do Madness and Death, for goodness sake! Rose was none of these things, and Pimen’s history book was more gripping. Of the other roles, Gregory Turay (as Grigory/pretend Dmitri) was very good, and David Stephenson (Shuisky) and Robert Murray (simpleton, I mean, man with learning disability) both pleasant to hear. Anna Grevelius was charming in her tiny role as Boris’s younger, cross-dressing daughter whom (presumably because her dad is Tsar) everyone plays along with and pretends is a boy.

One other high point of the performance was the chorus, who made a fantastic sound. This, and the fact that their words were clearly audible, managed to distract from the fact that there was not much to look at, with them all in grubby grey, shuffling around in a wonky wooden box of a set. Yes, Covent Garden’s wonky box predilection has clearly spread to the Coliseum. It was pretty dull and drab, which I assume was the idea, but it would have been nice to see more of a difference in the royal palace scenes than just wonky wooden box With Chair. Some very nice atmospheric lighting effects on the large screen which was sometimes exposed at the back, though.

Throughout, the orchestra sounded great. Gardner directed them with great confidence and energy, and there was strong solo and ensemble playing. I could really do with listening to (and reading) the Mussorgsky and Rimsky versions to do a proper comparison, but I think the Mussorgsky has more character and spikiness, using less obvious aural textures and combinations. I certainly found the orchestra particularly enjoyable to listen to this time, which was not so much the case previously. Whoever would have thought it? A composer who knew how he wanted his own music to sound!