Monday, 10 November 2008

Boris Godunov at ENO

I've just returned from the first performance of English National Opera's new production of Boris Godunov, the political psychodrama by Mussorgsky. ENO have decided on performing the work without a break. That means 2¼ hours of peroration-led drama, which could be rather testing for the audience.

It's not at all bad. Peter Rose's Boris sings with beautiful diction and he's a substantial figure on stage too - his dialogue with John Graham-Hall's Mandelsonian Shuisky is a complex study of the crippling forces of power, paranoia and genuine mental imbalance. Arguably the best singing comes from Brindley Sherratt's Pimen, totemic and clear. Very moving. I'd also want to commend Robert Murray's Simpleton, beautifully sung whenever he's not having to dash about.

The big achievement of the evening though (and, frankly, it's colossal) is the conducting of ENO Music Director Edward Gardner. Cav & Pag hadn't prepared me for this. He doesn't so much nail the score as build an entire Dacha from scratch. This is world-class conducting, organic and assured, dredging great pathos and narrative lyricism from the pit alone. The orchestra play very well for him (I'm not sure that the bells, whilst affecting, are particularly convincing - there's a mixture of recorded sounds and foundry-slapping up near the balcony. But this is a typical issue with this opera and not of particularly great importance).

The production is an unfussy, period affair, a single set with large doors creating their own vistas and prosceniums. Similarly with the dramatic but discreet lighting. The stage floor looks rather like a freshly ploughed field but dessicated; a Godforsaken plot in which no crops can grow and whence there is no food for the fickle, whining masses. It hadn't occurred to me how Oedipal (as in Sophocles, not Freud) Boris Godunov is, with it's chorus moving between pleading and indignation but always with judicious self-possession.

So, 2¼ hours later... It's a little bare to be overwhelming really (although Jonathan Veira's spirited Varlaam does make a good fist of re-energising the fourth scene) but Edward Gardner's beautifully calibrated lyricism is enough to carry the piece through this considerable span.

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