Magazine article The Spectator

How Boris Got under His Skin

Magazine article The Spectator

How Boris Got under His Skin

Article excerpt

There is a ridiculously tiny, narrow room carved out of the foyer of the London Coliseum, known as the Snuggery. I think it was originally intended as somewhere for King Edward VII to retire to for a touch of silken dalliance or simply to use the lavishly ornate mahogany facilities.

At any rate it's a handy place in which to settle for a conversation with English National Opera's music director, Edward Gardner, who is fresh -- and he does look it -- from a rehearsal with the chorus for a new production of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, opening on Monday.

This is a challenging opera for any company to perform and the first thing to be settled is the choice of version. Gardner and director Tim Albery are going for the original, seven-scene version, which was rejected by the Russian committee of Imperial Theatres in 1870, members of which were, in Rimsky-Korsakov's opinion, nonplussed by the 'freshness and originality' of Mussorgsky's music.

'It was originally Tim's idea to do this version, and if I ever had any doubts at all I came round to it very quickly. I love everything about the original -- it's the most instinctive version by a mile. The orchestration is lean and stark and you have to work hard to colour every orchestral phrase, but it has astonishing rawness and power. And what excites me enormously about doing this version is that we can do it straight through without an interval. There really is no natural place for one. What Tim and I are after -- did you see Michael Grandage's production of Schiller's Don Carlos? -- well, something like that.

Almost like a film, with blackouts at the end of scenes. The whole thing keeps rolling on and on with an inexorable momentum. Fate is absolutely relentless, and if we can capture that, both musically and dramatically, it just won't be possible to stop.' It is also an historically resonant choice as the British première of this version was given by the Vic-Wells Opera (which ultimately became ENO) in 1935, in English.

'I wonder how they tracked down the material for that. David Lloyd-Jones worked for years on producing the definitive edition, and he had terrible trouble getting hold of all the material he needed. His translation is terrific. He's made it tough and literal in a way that so many translations of Pushkin [author of the play on which the opera is based] completely fail to do. And his input has been completely invaluable. He knows the piece so well and and he's wonderfully generous about sharing his knowledge and giving little bits of brilliantly pragmatic advice.' This appreciation of others' contributions is an immensely engaging aspect of Gardner's character. He relishes the collaborative process of opera, working with directors who really stimulate him. From Richard Jones, director of the recent double bill of Cavalleria rusticana and I pagliacci, he looked for help to reach the level of heightened drama, almost hysteria, that both pieces demand. And he pays tribute to Tim Albery's exceptionally supple intelligence and his sureness of intent. 'I wish I was as sure about one thing as he is about everything, every day. He never vacillates. I love that to and fro you can get with good directors -- and often it's the ones who aren't musicians who have the best instincts for it. …

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