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!

Image borrowed from

Image borrowed from

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.]