Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: The Royal Opera's Boris Godunov

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: The Royal Opera's Boris Godunov

Article excerpt

The Royal Opera has bitten the bullet so far as Musorgsky's Boris Godunov goes, and opted to stage the original 1869 version, with no modifications or additions from his revised 1874 edition, which used to be called 'definitive' but which seems to be under a cloud nowadays. Rimsky-Korsakov's version has been pushed right to the back of the doghouse, so that it might soon be revived for its historical interest. Before I launch into my praise of the new production, which is an unqualified triumph, I would like to register some reservations about the work itself, in any of its versions.

It's routinely said that the hero of the opera is not Boris but the Russian people, tormented and downtrodden as they have always been and still are. As portrayed unflinchingly by Musorgsky and his source Pushkin, they are credulous of the latest rumours, especially nasty ones, quick to change sides, prone to bullying the less well-abled, in fact very much what crowds are, but hardly qualified to be called heroic. That is no doubt an accurate view of them, and it does what Musorgsky surely wanted to do, and that is to show the human condition as hopeless, cheerless, interesting only insofar as we have an appetite for misery.

Boris himself is not to any degree heroic: our first glimpse of him is as unwilling to become Tsar, and his opening address to the people is so downbeat that it's amazing that they celebrate his coronation so exuberantly -- this is marvellously done in this new production, the chorus electrifying and bells pealing out seemingly throughout the theatre. In the synopsis provided in the programme, after the account of the celebrations, we get in italics (meaning that this part of the story is not included in the opera), 'Years pass. Boris proves to be a good and wise ruler. Under his rule Russia prospers for some years.' But there is no depiction of this. The next time we see Boris, after his coronation, he is in the family circle but in low spirits, since Russia is undergoing a slump. He turns out to be a sympathetic family man, proud of his son's knowledge of geography, but as soon as he becomes meditative, in his great monologue 'I have attained the highest power', anguish and guilt set in, and he is easily persuaded by the oily Shuisky to hallucinate the past, and that is all we see of him, until he asks the Holy Fool to pray for him, and then follows the death scene, again very low-key in the original version. …

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