Bryn Terfel’s debut as Boris Gudonov for the Royal Opera had audience’s in rapture when the Richard Jones production opened in 2016 and is schedule for later this spring.
This season the Mussorsky’s work, a giant of Russian opera as adapted from an 1826 play by Alexander Pushkin, is being presented by the co-production house Deutsche Opera and the two hours without an interval is proving a musical and dramatic success.
While Terfel dominates in the title role in this clean and uncluttered production from always imaginative and here rather restrained Jones, with a set designed by Miriam Buether evoking both a Tsarist palace and Orthodox Cathedral all bells and icons, resplendent with colourfully costumed nobles and priests. The use of an upper galley to enable flowing action without scene changes thanks to an opening backdrop. It is on this upper gallery that the murder that haunts Boris as Tsar takes place and is repeatedly re-enacted as a ghastly dream, an ‘out-damned-spot’ stain that he cannot escape.
The murder of the flame haired boy Dmitri is carried throughout the drama which culminates in a leave you wondering, cut to black scene where the Tsar’s own flame haired son is in the hands of a killer with knife ready to strike.
Rather than playing Boris as a bloodthirsty tyrant Terfel, from the very start, is a doubting, troubled seemingly reluctant usurper. The killing that enables his power will not leave him and rather sends him into a kind of madness, played out before our eyes. The singing is more gentle and measured than dominating and fiery reflecting this interpretation of the role and our musical knight’s preference for subtlety in role creation. That guilt is manifested in the famine and suffering of the Russian people and the tide turns against their once beloved ruler.
The Berlin audience seemed more ready to share their appreciation with all of the cast than perhaps heap as much curtain call adulation on Terfel as we usually see on these shores. That was fully understandable with splendid cast with special note due to the Estonian bass Ante Jerkunica as Pimen, the monk turned pretender to the throne claiming to be Dmitry. The tavern scene as he escapes to Lithuania, unintentionally abetted by the monks Warlaam and Missail sung with comedic flair by Alexei Botnarciuc and Jorg Schorner, is darkly delicious.
Powering through Mussorsky’s eclectic score the young Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits explores all its variety with passion and intense feeling and the Der Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin in costumes as eye-grabbing as their singing that swept all before them.
Deutsche Oper, Berlin, Until March 9. www.deutscheoperberlin.de
Royal Opera, London, June 19-July 3. www.roh.org.uk