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Power struggle

Boris Godunov
English National Opera La rencontre imprévue
Guildhall School of Music and Drama

19 November 2008

12:00 AM

19 November 2008

12:00 AM

Boris Godunov
English National Opera


La rencontre imprévue
Guildhall School of Music and Drama

The new production of Musorgsky’s most important work Boris Godunov, at English National Opera, raises more questions than it answers. It is an impressive achievement, showing a seriousness of commitment to the work on the part of everyone involved, and yet there can have been few people in the audience on the first night who didn’t feel that it was teetering on the verge of tedium, if never quite lapsing into it. Given that ENO had decided to do the so-called ‘original’ version of 1869, that is without the Polish Act and thus without any major female role, it was wise to perform it without an interval. Each scene, even the final one, was left dangling, before the next began. That made for a striking degree of discontinuity, at the same time as it eliminated distraction. An oppressive kind of continuity was provided by the set, a wooden hut co-extensive with the Coliseum’s large stage, askew of course as all ENO sets have to be these days, and as unremittingly grim as the weather in the streets. Some colour was provided by the costumes, but we could have done with a lot more; and the only props were exiguous, a wicker chair for the Tsar’s throne, for instance. Periodically the back opened to reveal dim skies beyond, and in the one unarguably mistaken director’s stroke Boris, having sung his farewell, instead of dying tottered off into the distance, one of two silhouettes, the other of course the Simpleton, the eternal symbols, presumably, of Russia’s oppressor and oppressed.

Tim Albery’s direction matched this austerity. His handling of the chorus was restrained, their cowering and their rebelliousness convincing and fitting Musorgsky’s vision of a people who are downtrodden without being sympathetic or even pathetic. They sang even better than they acted, producing magnificent volumes of secure tone. The individual performers were mostly just as histrionically understated. The highest-profiled character was the superb Shuisky of John Graham-Hall, a slimy column of pseudo-concerned bureaucracy, the one kind of disgusting specimen who would never be eliminated in Russia or anywhere else. He did more, by contrast, to define Boris than Peter Rose, who actually performed the title role, seemed willing or able to himself, though his performance had its virtues. As they stood side by side Boris seemed a pawn at the mercy of schemers, and without the dignity or authority even temporarily to dominate them. This was where above all I longed for the great Borises of yesteryear, with their huge dark voices and their hysterical outbursts, their imperiousness — of which Rose hardly has any — and their nobly excruciating deaths. Rose’s Boris is like a modern constitutional monarch, or at best the Emperor Franz Joseph. Boris is a man who has murdered his way to power, but that was harder to believe than ever with Rose. He sang beautifully sometimes, but though that is important in this role, other ingredients are required, which weren’t forthcoming. The overall standard of singing and acting was high, but the hero of the occasion was Edward Gardner, incisive, sweeping, getting a prodigiously rich tone from the lower strings, and making one feel that it was, despite reservations, a worthwhile evening.

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama can be relied on for enterprise, and even the most seasoned opera-goer is unlikely to have seen, or to have heard, Gluck’s one mature comic opera, La rencontre imprévue. Anyone who is acquainted with Gluck’s idiom in the so-called post-reform operas, that is all the ones we are likely to encounter, will agree that, in that idiom’s simplicity, strength of line, noble grandeur, it is hardly suited for comedy. And that does turn out, in large measure, to be the case. La rencontre has a plot very similar to Mozart’s Entfuhrung, and is, like that opera, composed of sung numbers and spoken dialogue. In the fairly rumbustious overture we get some ‘Turkish’ touches, too, and a quite effective swagger. But in the opera itself there is far too much dialogue, and the plot degenerates from the fanciful to the merely silly. Yet many of the individual arias, short as they are, are lovely and worthy of their great composer, just. And the hero Ali has one aria which, accompanied by a violin and cor anglais in unison with pizzicato strings, is wonderfully characteristic of its composer. The young Portuguese tenor Carlos Nogueira, hero of the show, despatched it with finesse. As usual at the GSMD I found the general level of acting and singing decent without leading me to expect to see or hear many of the performers again. The sets, elegant and economical, might serve as a model for much wealthier houses, both in tastefulness and in ease of movement and continuity of action. Nicholas Kok conducted. Perhaps the schools of music might take the hint and perform more of the perennially neglected oeuvre of this master of opera, whose demands on his players and singers are much more for sensitivity and intensity than for staggering feats of technique, and whose operas play ideally in smaller theatres.


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