Boris Godunov, the man, the Tsar, is a huge anti-hero, not, I think, a villain. Opera abounds in villains but there are few anti-heroes. Indeed few operatic villains live long enough to suffer from remorse or do any serious repenting. But Boris style men who, after wicked deeds, are tortured with remembrance of their murderous action, abound in theatre. Musorgsky who wrote the libretto for his own opera based on Pushkin’s play, had been reading and admiring Shakespeare. Thus Boris shares many of the same sinner’s punishments as Macbeth, including seeing the ghost of the man, or in his case, the seven year old child he has murdered.

The ROH production follows the original Musorgsky opera which consists of seven scenes, played without an interval. This is not for the faint-hearted. There is not an atom of love interest and the crowd/chorus, whether of Boyars - a kind of parliament - or peasants - always complaining, sometimes starving – become as much a part of the story as individual characters. This properly emphasizes the vastness of the land and population which the Tsar must rule but it also makes it harder to concentrate on individuals.

Boris Godunov himself has no friends or lovers with which he can explain his tragedy of the guilty man in a position of power that should not have been his, which means he is often soliloquising. In his first full aria which comes some way into the performance when we are already distanced from the narrative by large crowds, it is not clear whom he is addressing. This is not necessarily bad as it makes clear the solitary nature of his life but it does not help the audience to identify with his feelings. As the story progresses, he is shown to be a loving family man, and when his guilt finally drags him into madness and the grave, his little son and heir clings to him lovingly. But for me it was too late. I felt no sympathy for his downfall and none of the tragedy of his death.

Since Boris was sung by Bryn Terfel in splendid voice, I put none of the blame on the performers, nor indeed on the director, Richard Jones, nor the sets and costumes which were truly sumptuous. Other roles were also sung by excellent artists, Prince Shuisky by Canadian tenor, Roger Honeywell, Pimen by Mathew Rose, Varlaam by John Tomlinson, Missail by Harry Nicoll. A special mention, too, for Joshua Abrams who beautifully sang and acted Boris Godunov’s young son.

Musorgsky’s music has all the hallmark of success, an inventive use of Russian folk tunes, coupled with excitingly unstable and fragmented chords when Boris as Boris begins to lose his confidence. His mind cracks further with the news that there is a pretender to the throne, a man who comes into the country from Poland and calls himself Dmitry, insisting he is the young rightful Tsar who survived Boris’s attack twelve years earlier. We, the audience, know he is an imposter because we have seen him as Grigory, a restless monk, in an earlier scene. Boris also knows he is a Pretender because he killed the real Dmitry himself. Nevertheless the fact of the young man’s existence undermines him further.

In sum, this opera should appeal to those who like their opera to present a magnificent sight and enjoy Musorgsky’s music sympathetically interpreted, but for those who want to be moved and exhilarated and taken into the sphere of heightened emotion where the best opera leads, then ‘Boris Godunov’, in this reviewer’s opinion, is not for you.

Modest Petrovich Musorgsky
Conductor Marc Albrecht
Director Richard Jones