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Tsar Boris

11/11/1998 -  and 14, 18, 20, 24, 27 November, 2, 4, 8, 11 December 1998
Modest Musorgsky : Boris Godunov
John Tomlinson (Boris Godunov), Timothy Webb (Fyodor), Susan Gritton (Xenia), Robert Tear (Shuisky), Roberto Salvatori (Shchelkalov), John Connell (Pimen), John Daszak (Grigory), Jeremy White (Varlaam), Mark le Brocq (Misail), Della Jones (Innkeeper), Timothy Robinson (Simpleton)
Paul Daniel (conductor)
Francesca Zambello (director)

The ENO has had two less than superlative new productions so far this season in Otello and Mary Stuart, so with the Royal Opera on hold a lot is riding on Boris Godunov for London's standing as a home of world-class opera. Godunov looks great on paper: John Tomlinson and Paul Daniel repeat their partnership from the successful Opera North Production, and Francesca Zambello's Khovanshchina showed her gift for this repertoire. And the result is moving and often beautiful, with fine musical values and impeccable casting all round.

Zambello's production uses mobile units to create sub-sets in the open stage, suggesting moments of cohesion and even domesticity in a vast, dangerous space. The setting is modern Russia, rather generally: the Boyars and Boris (initially) wear sharp suits like Mafiosi, but the chorus and other characters wear Soviet drab. Once or twice the sets use black and white photographic-looking images, suggesting expressionist film of the 1920s, with perhaps a nod towards Paul Leni's Ivan the Terrible episode from Waxworks and Eisenstein's more famous Ivan the Terrible.

It is difficult, given the slide into chaos of the plot, not the think also of quasi-Tsar Boris Nikoleyevich, though nothing specific is made of the possible parallels. Rather, Zambello emphasises the Shakespearean shape of the drama, skillfully orchestrating the individuals and currents within the chorus and shaping the scenes to deliver both their particular mood and colour (enhanced by elegant lighting which becomes incongruously sunny during the epilogue) and the development of the plot towards cataclysm followed by the quiet despair of the simpleton, who hangs himself as the curtain falls.

John Tomlinson sounded a little rough in places, and perhaps didn't deliver the beauty of the music. But he is close to perfect dramatically as Boris. Incredibly in the vast space of the Coliseum, he made every word audible, and make complete sense. Robert Tear was icy as Shuisky, looking something like Beria and engaging in a sinister game of false bonhomie with Boris. John Connell was authoritative as Pimen, and John Daszak was hysterical but charismatic, vocally as well, as the pretender Grigory. The treble Timothy Webb was splendidly straightforward and unsickly as the young Fyodor.

The smaller roles were all finely, even luxuriously, cast. Della Jones was rough and rude as the Innkeeper, pretty much croaking out her naughty song con brio. Jeremy White was very funny as Valaam the unreliable friar. (It's amazing how many Russian basses you can find in London at the moment.) And Timothy Robinson's elegant, ethereal tenor was superb for the gentle simpleton, who hovered around the stage throughout.

As often, much of the credit for this fine performance goes to Paul Daniel and the ENO orchestra. They used Musorgsky's own orchestration, which could lack punch in a house as big as the Coliseum. But, from the opening bell notes in near total darkness, they delivered the often strange resonances of the music superbly, as well as its dramatic shape.

Like last season's From the House of the Dead, this production of Boris Godunov may lack the feelgood factor. But it delivers a rather difficult and serious work in a clear and suprisingly attractive way, and it has room to grow with time.

H.E. Elsom



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