Modest Mussorgsky Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera House, London with Bryn Terfel, in the original 1869 version rather than the tarted-up 1872 version revised by Rimsky-Korsakov.The second version is popular because it adds pretty girls, kids, battlefields which is fine. Opera "is" circus, meant for thrills and spills. But opera is also theatre, where drama is part of meaning. Mussorgsky's original is dark and claustrophobic, like Boris's mind, closing in on itself, grappling with self doubt. The revision has show tunes, ballet interludes and other distractions to draw attention away from Boris's predicament, and away from the very tension that makes the drama so disturbing.
Barely a year ago, Valery Gergiev brought Boris Godunov to London with the Mariinsky Opera, who might, one assumes, know what they're doing with Russian opera. They did the original version, adding the Innkeeper's song which adds fun to the proceedings without changing the fundamental impact of the original. Vladimir Putin rules with an iron fist, like Tsars of old, but he, like Boris, has to watch his back. No-one comes to that kind of power by being cute and cuddly. Gergiev and the Mariinsky are where they are because Putin supports them. Go figure, then, when they do Boris Godunov. It wasn't a surprise at all that Gergiev turned up late for the Barbican performance (and even later for the next evening's concert). Whatever held him up must have worked, for Gergiev's conducting was astonishingly uninhibited, fuelled with courage and disdain for time-serving trivia. Though there were technical blips in Gergiev's conducting, the orchestra and the singers know the opera - and their charismatic boss - so well that they, too, became inspired by Gergiev's devil-may-care verve. Circus audiences wouldn't understand.
Eight years ago the ENO did Boris Godunov in the original version at the Coliseum. Edward Gardner conducted. Much as I love him, he couldn't match Gergiev's almost demented bloody-mindedness. The production was by Tim Albery. The set was grey and barren, like the shelves of a Stalin era supermarket, perhaps, where the populace were grateful for any scrap they could scrounge. That's why the Tsars and the Church were able to overwhelm the peasants. Their authority was built on being able to dazzle the serfs into submission. No wonder the peasants are terrified that somehow the world will collapse if they aren't dominated by a Leader. Of course their piety is enforced by brutality, but the confluence of credulity and servitude tells us something about totalitarian regimes. If people want to believe, they'll believe anything. This is why False Dimitris figure so much in Russian history. The dead Tsarevich can't actually wield power but symbolically becomes a saint and thus connecting to the power of the Church. Like the Church, this isn't rational, but it scares the wits out of Boris.I don't usually like Tim Albery's work, but his Boris Godunov was effective because it concentrated colour with power. Give the public "bread and circuses" to keep them cowed.
Ideally, good opera would balance substance and showmanship, but fundamentally circuses without bread aren't nourishing. (bread can be fun if it's good) Consider the "Nabucco syndrome" with its austere set reflecting the invisible One True God. It's just as well that some of the London audience weren't Hebrew slaves. They'd have apostated quicksmart to graven images and golden calves Full review to follow in Opera Today.
Original Content: Bread and circuses - Boris Godunov, ROH