I usually work on the presumption that any reader will be reasonably au fait with the work in hand – otherwise why would they even bother to be reading? – and so steer clear of anything much by way of exegesis or basic information. With Boris Godunov, however, if your musical experience has been limited, as is likely, to one of the revised versions – which are the ones most extensively performed and recorded – then perhaps just a smidge of spoon-feeding might not come amiss. Mussorgsky wrote his original treatment of Pushkin’s 1825 imitation-Shakespeare blank verse drama in 1868/9, only two years after official imperial censorship had finally licensed the play some thirty years after Pushkin’s death. Ironically, Mussorgsky himself then ran into censorship troubles of his own, in the light of which he extensively rewrote the opera in 1871/2. But it is immediately clear from the revision that the objections had not been – as everyone invariably assumes – political in nature (all the contentious stuff from the original survives intact in the rewrite, regicides, revolting peasants and all) but actually aesthetic: there was no love interest, no principal female role, ergo no love duet, all of which offended against the canons of Imperial court taste, rooted as it was in a steady diet of French and Italian works. So what the revision mainly does is to put the drama on hold for 45 minutes whilst an entire act is added, introducing us to the Polish princess Marina and the scheming Jesuit advisor Rangoni, and her mutually advantageous seduction of the “false Dmitri” or Pretender to the Tsarist throne (who is actually a monk we’ve met earlier in the piece, Grigory Otrepiev, busy affecting to be the resurrected infant Tsarevich Dmitri whom Boris, his guardian, may or may not have had whacked en route to occupying the throne himself: think Richard III hereabouts).
That’s it as far as Mussorgsky himself is concerned, not just dead drunk as per, but actually drunk dead (at 41, in 1881) from cirrhosis of the liver. Thereafter, that indefatigable “improver” Rimsky-Korsakov got to work, and himself revised the opera twice, once in 1896, and then again in 1908. For decades it was one or other of these revisions that held the world’s opera stages. Indeed, the revised versions are the only ones the Royal Opera itself has ever performed, first in a staging by Peter Brook, then in one by Andrei Tarkovsky, ending not with Boris’s death in the Kremlin, as in the original, but with a new scene set in the Kromy forest, as the false Dmitri and his followers move on Moscow. Now, I don’t know what the ROH has in mind for its forthcoming new production with Bryn Terfel in the lead, textually-speaking. But someone there must have noticed that when Gergiev brought his Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) forces to the house in 2005 to perform the work, and in his own production to boot, he did so in the 1869 original, which may lack any number of features thought indispensible in this opera – including having no clock in the “clock scene” to give Boris the horrors – but does have the inestimable advantage of carrying no surplus dramatic fat, positioning the “hero” pretty much centre-stage in his own opera, and ending with his death, none of which can be said of any of the revisions. So, tonight, as the opening salvo in its brief Barbican residency, the forces of the Mariinsky Theatre were reassembled here under Valery Gergiev for a concert performance account of the 1869 score. And shorn of the maestro’s rather quaint visual input, the work emerged with quite blazing fervour, trim (under 135 minutes’ music) dramatically fighting fit, and overwhelmingly powerful in its impact, both musical and theatrical.
I don’t really know how Gergiev does it, to be honest. Wielding a tooth-pick baton, he marshals his relatively modest forces – orchestra under 60, barely 50 choristers – and conjures such commitment from all concerned that the vast hordes of the mighty Met running at twice the numbers couldn’t and indeed don’t produce anything comparable in terms of such staggering sonority. The richness and precision of the strings – this, with a mere five double basses, a number no London or American band would be caught dead fielding in this repertory – is a thing of wonder to encounter. The sheer brazen cut and thrust of the brass, the hair-raising climaxes, the almost tangible vodka-and-onions reek of the chorus are all part and parcel of a simple but indescribably idiomatic account that seems to distil the very essence of Russian miserablism enshrined in the score. You may not like the Russians’ mentality any the better for it, but my God you come away from something like this at least understanding why it’s the way it is. So with operatic infrastructure this strong, sweeping all before it, in a funny kind of way the contribution of the actual individual singers counts for rather less than it normally would. This is not a criticism, merely an observation: when the sense of overall ensemble is this tight, the focus of shared vision this intense, a performance can accommodate both passengers and star-turns with equal ease.
Which of course is another way of saying that the singing was somewhat uneven. The veteran Sergei Alexashkin got into difficulties with the role of the drunk mendicant Varlaam and never entirely extricated himself from them thereafter, though the character came across clearly enough. And the normally rock-solid Andrey Popov caught a croak or two as the Simpleton in the St. Basil’s Cathedral scene (the penultimate one in this edition, rather than its replacement, the Kromy forest, placed last in the revision(s)). I’ve certainly heard richer, darker, more fatly sonorous Borises than Mikhail Kazakov – Boris Christoff, for one: Nicolai Ghiaurov for another, my two first – but he has the measure of the role, and managed to be moving in extremis in a way that the grander-voiced monstres-sacrés often aren’t, the emotion too broad and overblown, the eye-rolling too blatant (Christoff a particular offender hereabouts). On the other hand, I thought Sergey Semishkur quite perfect as Grigory, the plotting monk, a fine irony given that for once I would happily have heard him in the long duet with Marina in Act III if only it had been there. And Mikhail Petrenko was equally good, firm and even, as Pimen, the old monk-chronicler whose account of the history of the Russian people and the horrors they’ve endured is accompanied throughout by the same endlessly-repeated two-note rocking figure as underpins the finale of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, a fact someone will doubtless notice one day.
Both of Boris’s children were well sung, though Ekaterina Sergeyeva, a rich-toned, beautifully-schooled mezzo, made more of the son Feodor than the slightly raw-edged soprano Anastasia Kologina made of his daughter Xenia: Elena Vitman was the alas authentically blowsy Babushka. Evgeny Akimov sang a very “straight”, reedy-voiced Shuisky, notably low on either wheedling tone or any evident cunning, to the point that I sat there recalling Philip Langridge in the part in preference. But Yury Vlasov was an exemplary, very young Nikitich (the police chief) sung with a large black voice full of juice. It was nice to see Olga Savova again, as the Innkeeper, slightly less so to hear her, unfortunately, the voice now being very wobbly indeed. Both Roman Burdenko and Alexander Timchenko – as Schchelkalov and Missail respectively – made the most of their brief utterances. And the two-dozen-strong Tiffin Boys Choir made a strong, characterful contribution to their two scenes set in Red Square (numbers two and six, of seven). I can’t vouch for the quality of Rodion Schedrin’s music in The Left-Hander, which has its UK premiere in the Barbican on Tuesday 4th with these forces: but if this performance of Boris Godunov, with its pole-axing power and complete conviction, is anything to go by, you’d be well advised to turn up just in case lightning strikes twice.