Mussorgsky – Boris Godunov

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Friday December 9 2005

Conductor: Valery Gergiev. Production: Victor Kramer. Boris Godunov: Evgeny Nikitin. Fyodor, his son: Maria Matveyeva. Xenia, his daughter: Irina Mataeva. Xenia's nurse: Olga Markova-Mikhailenko. Prince Vasiliĭ Ivanovič Shuĭskiĭ: Alexei Steblianko. Andreĭ Ščelkalov, council secretary: Vassili Gerello. Pimen, chronicler, anchorite: Vladimir Vaneev. Pretender (False Dimitriĭ, Grigoriĭ): Oleg Balachov. Varlaam, itinerant monk: Vladimir Ognovenko. Misail, itinerant monk: Nikolai Gassiev. Hostess of the inn: Olga Savova. Simpleton (Yurodivyĭ): Evgeny Akimov. Nikitič, police officer: Alexei Tannovitski. Ochestra and Chorus of the Mariinski Theatre, St Petersburg.

Boris (lost?) in Space

An all-Russian opera performance is so different from our usual western fare you wonder (even without a sci-fi production: more of that later) if Russia is on another planet, and need a whole new language (Klingon?) to describe it. Their tenors sound like baritones, their basses ring out at the top like tenors, their sopranos sing higher yet sound lower and fuller than ours, their orchestra is richer, riper, deeper and more sonorous (right from the opening bassoon solo) and their chorus, though small, sounds twice the size…

Gestures are broad and brash and cheerfully hammy, and the music-making is generous, heartfelt and in a way more natural than we’re used to: there’s none of the timid (and tiresome) “taste” that passes for musicianship in the west, none of the pussyfooting, mincing and mannerisms that constitute “art” (e.g. a Von Otter singing mezza-voce and pianissimo all evening while the audience strains to hear). The Mariinski mob sing and play and act Boris as if they’d done it all their life (as I suppose they have, in a thousand performances from St Petersburg to Petropavlovsk and back) and still love every minute.

Not everyone in this Boris was outstanding: Matveyeva’s Fyodor was pallid, Pretender Balachov fluffed his top notes, Steblianko’s Shuĭskiĭ was hard and metallic and his character a blank. But these were exceptions – and what a pleasant change actually to hear everyone clearly for once.

Evgeny Nikitin is an untypical Boris: young and athletic, hale and hearty - more like a rugby forward in his prime than an ailing tyrant - and with a huge, bright, clear voice, not the cavernous elderly bass sound we might expect. That was more the vocal type of the excellent Ognovenko (Varlaam), who indeed sang Kutusov in this year’s Bastille revival of War & Peace but here was able to give us a display of genial comic (over-)acting. Evgeny Akimov’s clarion high notes also made for an excellent Simpleton, and Vladimir Vaneev’s Pimen showed that Russian generosity and straightforwardness don’t mean artlessness, still less vulgarity: his was a beautifully nuanced performance, the result no doubt of years of experience.

Unfortunately the production proved a distraction from the music-making and at times fought against the singers’ credibility. It was space opera, looking like a Kitsch and deliberately clunky sci-fi spoof, ranging from Mad Max at the start (the chorus roped in between rickety, wheeled metal constructions bearing banks of spotlights and flickering fluorescent tubes) to War of the Worlds, with a touch of Alien (squid-like tentacles everywhere), a sprinkling of Star Wars (Boyards as Darth Vader figures) and even a hint of the Wizard of Oz (Fyodor surrounded by Munchkins).

Gelatinous semi-transparency was the main design theme, with weird, jellyfish-style onion domes dangling from above, lit from within, strange aqueous colours and lighting (switching to blood red at moments of high drama) and bizarre, transparent costumes. The apotheosis, when the chandelier sprouted hairy silver spider’s legs that descended to the stage, caging Boris in, ruined his final scene.

So Boris Godunov was somewhat lost in space, and it was better to close your eyes: the music-making bodes well for next Wednesday’s concert, with an unusually generous Prokofiev programme featuring Olga Borodina, and no production to worry about…

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