Boris and Ivan
Royal Albert Hall
Modest Musorgsky: Boris Godunov
Alexei Tannovitsky (Police Office/Border Guard), Georgy Zastavny (Mityksa), Vassily Gerello (Shchelkalov), Konstantin Pluzhnikov (Shuisky), Vladimir Ognovenko (Boris Godunov), Alexander Morozov (Pimen), Alexei Steblianko (Grigory), Lyubov Sokolovna (Innkeeper), Leonid Zakhozhayev (Missail), Fyodor Kuznetsov (Varlaam), Olga Trifonova (Xenia), Maria Gortsevskaya (Fyodor), Nadezhda Vassilieva (Nurse), Yuri Laptev (Boyar-in-attendance), Evgeny Akimov (Simpleton)
Valery Gergiev (conductor)
Chorus of the Kirov Opera, Orchestra of the Kirov Opera
Sofia Gubaidulina: Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ according to St John
Natalia Korneva (soprano), Viktor Lutsyuk (tenor), Fyodor Mozhaev (baritone), Gennady Bezzubenkov (bass)
Valery Gergiev (conductor)
St Petersburg Chamber Chorus, Chorus of the Kirov Opera, Orchestra of the Kirov Opera
Valery Gergiev has had a haircut but otherwise it is business as remarkable usual with the Kirov Opera. Their weekend visit to the Proms, presumably planned to minimize travel and hotel costs, spanned things Russian and musical from the origins of the Orthodox liturgy to the day of judgement, via the early Tsars and twentieth-century grappling with the Soviet system. As well as a workhorse Prokoviev-and-Shostakovich orchestral concert, there was a concert performance of Boris Godunov, a work they pretty much own, and the UK première of Sofia Gubaidulina's 2001 Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ according to St John, a modern Russian response to the narrative of Christ's passion, as well as to Bach.
The hall was full for Boris, understandably after the Kirov's revelatory Covent Garden visit in 2000. (The Verdi fiasco in 2001 was clearly a major misjudgement rather than a sign of decline.) The cast, including the various voices from the chorus, was clearly used to performing their roles on stage. At times there was a hint of comfortableness, even in some hairy moments that showed it was not exactly autopilot, that was at odds with the bitter and often shocking nature of the work. But then in the 1869 version, which was performed on Saturday, the seven scenes are symbolic moments in a historic development that it is assumed everyone knows about already. There is no dramatic plot as such, or, in this version, conspiracy or skulduggery except for Boris' presumed previous murder of Dmitri. Instead the people's resentment of power, and the ambivalent role of religion in its exercise, are in the foreground until Boris' madness erupts and overwhelms everything else in the final scenes. The sense of inevitability is, well, inevitable.
At any rate, the grumpy people being bullied into demonstrating in favour of Boris in the opening scene were still pretty funny, in a Shakespearean way, as were the Keystone Kops police there and at the inn. Lyubov Sokolovna was a fine earthy Innkeeper, and Fyodor Kuznetsov good and Falstaffian as Varlaam the boozy monk. The many other character roles were well filled and sung.
The performance was worth seeing, though, just for Vladimir Ognovenko's Boris. His voice was pretty good, his singing was pretty good and his acting (like most of the company's) decidedly old fashioned. But his performance went beyond commitment to being, and you could believe he both saw and embodied the terror of a great county in violent dissolution. The pure certainty of Evgeny Akimov, who sang beautifully as the Simpleton, was a striking and moving contrast.
For Musorgsky's audience, or at least for the authorities who finally approved Boris for performance, Boris' reign and the following troubles were the darkness before the dawn of modern Russian civilization under the Great Tsars. But there is a prevailing gloom about it that looks typically Russian to non-Russians. The narrative of Christ's passion is seen by Bach (and most Western Christians) as the suffering before redemption but Sofia Gubaidulina's shattering Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ according to St John (also referred to as the St John Passion and Easter) likewise depicts the cataclysmic nature of the crucifixion and resurrection as their essence. She intersperses texts from Revelations, traditionally attributed to St John the evangelist, to highlight the eschatological aspects of the gospel narrative as well perhaps as to provide a surreal commentary: the soldiers who divide Jesus' robe are accompanied by armour-plated locusts; Jesus eats fish on the shore of the lake as the anti-Christ is sent fizzing into another lake and the lamb hands St John the scroll of suffering to eat. The Easter narrative is effectively a replay of the crucifixion, with Thomas' doubts replicating Judas' betrayal and Jesus triple questioning of Peter replicating Peter's triple denial. Many of the texts from Revelation are those used in the third part of Handel's Messiah -- there is even a separate Hallelujah section for the Day of Judgement -- but there is no triumph, only a sense of the unending conflict with evil and the flesh.
Gubaidulina's form is also substantially different from Bach's. She uses and alludes to the conventions of Russian Orthodox music (there were bell-driven passages of overlap with the music of Boris' coronation), but there is no tradition of reading the passion narrative in the Russian Orthodox church, and a prohibition on impersonating holy figures, so she negotiates a kind of dialogue with Bach: solo bass and tenor take the foreground, but they both sing (or intone) the gospel narrative, including the words of Christ and others; solo baritone and soprano sing the texts from Revelations, more operatically set; there are two choruses, but one is smaller and serves as a kind of ripiena, singing mainly Revelations texts. The orchestra verges on the phantasmagoric, with massive percussion, a synthesizer that makes otherworldly sounds in the Passion, and Wagner horns that point to another vision of universal cataclysm redeemed by love.
The overall effect of the work is in itself overpowering and engrossing. Similarities with Messiah extend beyond the use of some of the same texts to the indirect and often mysterious evocation of the last things, and you certainly do not need to be Russian to engage with the work. Sunday's performance was also remarkable as a performance. The Kirov cannot have done Passion and Easter very often; some of the intensity was surely due to their continuing discovery of what is in it within the familiar, recombined forms. Most of the credit, though, must go to the incredible Gennady Bezzubenkov, the bass soloist. As Kutuzov in War and Peace a couple of years ago, he sounded like an old bass with expressive powers that triumphed over weariness. He has the expressive powers all right, but the weariness was acting: he was rock solid for almost three hours, and found intense drama in music modelled on liturgical chant that seems to offer much less than Bach gives to his evangelists. In contrast to Ognovenko, whose Boris communicated using the fragments of language, music and gesture, Bezzubenkov filled the hall with a seamless mass of voice and meaning. He is a singer for connoisseurs of Russian basses, certainly, but in Gubaidulina's Passion and Easter he achieved greatness.
The other soloists were pretty good, particularly the baritone Fyodor Mozhaev, who had to sing against the orchestra of the apocalypse.
The hall, alas, was probably less than a third full. Passion and Easter should record pretty well, but as often, there was so much more to being there.