Mussorgsky Boris Godunov Opus Arte OA1376D DVD

Modeste Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Boris Godunov (1869 version)
Bryn Terfel (baritone) – Boris
David Butt Philip (tenor) – Grigory, Dimitri
John Graham-Hall (tenor) – Shuisky
John Tomlinson (bass) – Varlaam
Ain Anger (bass) – Pimen
Royal Opera Covent Garden/Antonio Pappano
Richard Jones (producer)
rec. live, 21 March 2016, Royal Opera Covent Garden, London
Extra: Bryn Terfel and Antonio Pappano [5]
Opus Arte OA1376D DVD [144]

Whenever one is discussing a recording, whether video or audio, of Boris Godunov, one always has to begin by identifying precisely what one is hearing. As is well known, Mussorgsky left two versions of the score; an 1869 version in seven scenes which was rejected by the Bolshoi, and a revised version in 1874 which added three completely new scenes but substantially overhauled and cut others. The confused situation was complicated when a further revision of the 1874 score by Rimsky-Korsakov became the generally established version for some half a century. Since 1950 various opera houses have employed various combinations of the different editions, and many of these have found their way onto recordings; the most comprehensive of these ‘combined versions’ have been represented on CD by Abbado (using both Mussorgsky’s editions) and Karajan (using Rimsky-Korsakov), although Gergiev did produce an interesting compromise by providing both 1869 and 1874 versions (with different casts) in a single box of five CDs.

There is little argument here; what we are given in Mussorgsky’s original 1869 pure and simple. Not only have the Polish scenes gone in their entirety; so has the closing Kromy Forest scene, and other additions especially in the scene in the Tsar’s apartments (including the famous ‘Clock Scene’ which did so much to establish the reputation of the score outside Russia when the role was undertaken by Chaliapin). Incidental characters, like the Hostess in the inn on the Lithuanian border, or Feodor with his parrot, become even more peripheral; others, like the boyars Shuisky and Tchelkalov, gain substantially. Pimen recovers his description of the death of Dimitri – its excision in 1874 is quite inexplicable, since it removes an essential element in the plot – but the false Dimitri himself disappears once he has crossed the border into Lithuania, and is never seen again.

One really does miss the Kromy Forest revolution scene, which serves to bring the focus back onto the role of the Russian people in their history, but the use of the original score does serve to centre our attention of the role of Boris himself. And here that focus is fully justified by the first appearance of Sir Bryn Terfel as the conscience-stricken Tsar. Any fears that his baritonal voice would lack the essential Slavonic richness that we have associated over the years with Chaliapin, Christoff, Ghiaurov and Nesterenko are completely unfounded; his rich tones roll out over Mussorgsky’s original orchestration with total control. And his acting is superlative. Nobody in their right minds would try to undertake the role of Boris if they were dramatically incompetent, but even singers like Christoff or Nesterenko employed the large gesture in a style that could easily turn into caricature. Not so here. Even in his initial appearance Terfel is haunted by the shadow of guilt, and as the drama progresses this slowly intensifies into mania; he is helped by the text of the original ‘apartments’ scene, where Boris’s actual responsibility is left more ambiguous until his final vision of the ghost of the murdered tsarevitch.

The production by Richard Jones is rather more problematic. We are actually shown the murder of Dimitri during the opening bars, and the upper part of the stage is several times used for a flashback of this scene at appropriate moments. The top with which the boy is playing then plays a symbolic role until, in a moment that risks risibility, it starts spinning across the stage as Boris sees the ghost. This is over-egging the pudding; we know why the Tsar is filled with remorse, and we don’t need to continually be reminded of it. But apart from this Jones, who has a reputation for iconoclastic interpretations, keeps clear of contentious additions. In places, such as the closing scene between the Tsar and the Simpleton in the St Basil scene (another happy restoration), he achieves a real sense of catharsis; and he manages well with the scene changes on open stage, even when the accompanying music sometimes produces an oddly dislocated effect. It might have been better to introduce a couple of intervals rather than play the whole opera straight through; although Mussorgsky never indicated any Act divisions, he cannot have intended that there should be no pause at all.

The remainder of the singing cast is just as good. Ain Anger is a real asset as Pimen, thoroughly justifying the restoration of his full narrative of the death of Dimitri, and becomes a baleful presence at Boris’s death. David Butt Philip, although he loses most by the truncations of the 1869 version, makes a firm mark as the shifty fugitive; John Graham-Hall is suitably insinuating and sly with a real hint of viciousness when he thinks he is unobserved. John Tomlinson, one-time Tsar himself, thoroughly enjoys slumming it as the drunken monk; and the rich-toned Kostas Smoriginas makes an ideal secretary to the council of boyars, with his extended solo at the beginning of the final scene another happy restoration. I have never before seen the Tsarevitch cast with a real boy singer (the extended roles in the nursery scenes added in 1874 would almost certainly necessitate assigning the role to a suitable mezzo-soprano) but Ben Knight is excellent and brings a real note of panic-striken realisation to his voice as he realises that his father is dying – this is no innocent boy walking blindly to his fate. The remainder of the cast are also excellent, notably Andrew Tortise as a suitably bewildered Simpleton and Rebecca du Pont Davies as the conspiratorial hostess of her den of smugglers and fugitives from justice.

Pappano obtains superlative singing from the chorus (they are superior to their undisciplined Bolshoi rivals in the Nesterenko video) especially in the climax of the St Basil scene where the roof seems to lift off. He also gets enthusiastic playing from the orchestra in a manner which thoroughly justifies Mussorgsky’s scoring and makes Rimsky-Korsakov’s well-intentioned amendments superfluous. The booklet (English only) contains a track list and synopsis; subtitles on screen come in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean but oddly enough not the original Russian. Those who want a video representation of Mussorgsky’s initial thoughts on the opera are well served here; those who pine for the extended revolutionary scenes will inevitably have to look elsewhere.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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Additional cast
Andrew Tortise (tenor) – Simpleton
Ben Knight (treble) – Feodor
Vlada Borovko (soprano) – Xenia
Harry Nicoll (tenor) – Missail
Kostas Smoriginas (baritone) – Schelkalov
Rebecca de Pont Davies, mezzo-soprano) – Hostess
Sarah Pring (mezzo-soprano) – Nurse
Adrian Clarke (baritone) – Mitiukh
James Platt (bass) – Frontier guard
Jeremy White (bass) – Nikitch
Nicholas Sales (tenor) – Boyar-in-waiting

Production details
Miriam Buether (sets)

Video details
Sound formats: LPCM 2.0, DTS
Region code: all regions
Picture format: 16.9 anamorphic