At first glance, watching an opera based entirely on the reign of Tsar Boris Gudonov, set in sixteenth-century Russia does not exactly sound riveting. However, this new production of Modest Mussorgsky’s score at the Royal Opera House certainly overthrows expectations. Gudonov’s struggle to deal with the guilt-ridden consequences of murdering young Dimitry, the rightful Tsar, and the threat of Grigory, a novice monk planning to avenge the young child, transport an audience into the supreme leader’s downward spiral. In fact, the show could be said to examine the mental collapse of any present-day world leader, making this introspective spin on the original opera all the more relevant.
Photo credit: Clive Barda
The opera creatively interprets a massive canvas of Russian politics and historical events, in order to best support the story of the protagonist’s guilt. This is well managed, in the sense that we never feel distracted or overloaded by historical context and instead we are encouraged to focus on the emotional predicament of the Tsar, who is supported by an impressive chorus portraying many roles from starving peasants to stoic boyars. In particular, the way that the boyars are quickly lined up when they come onstage and then tend to sing in deafening, appraising chants is once again a reminder of Russia’s strict regime. This, therefore, adds to the pressure Gudonov feels to rule sternly, in conflict with reeling psychological tendencies, which often leave principal actor Bryn Terfel crouching on the floor in darkness left to fend against his own demons.
However, such intense emotional moments are surprisingly spaced out; in fact, the music often seems like heavier subject matter than the historical context of Russian feuds and famine of this period. More dramatic sequences, such as the hatching of Grigory’s plan to murder Gudonov, are accompanied by undeniably dissonant, yet effective, block chords which move in unpredictable modulations. The conductor is masterful in wringing out the villain Grigory’s character theme now and again, dominated by the resonant viola section, which is rare to see in orchestral accompaniment and adds a new seductive layer to the general dread of the opera.
It is this overarching dread which lends the production its greatness, and it really has been implemented into all parts of the staging. The lighting, for instance, ensures long shadows of the ruler are cast sinisterly over the props, like a large map of Russia which signifies his eventual loss of popularity amongst his citizens when he begins to go mad. Such eeriness is also captured through the reliving of young Dimitry’s murder in Gudonov’s imagination, as black-clad figures lurk in the upper section of the stage and silently slit the young boy’s throat before dragging him off stage.
The stark, crisp production really brings forward Gudonov’s guilt in a haunting way; set designer Miriam Buether has outdone herself as the stage is split horizontally into two sections. The lower, darker box lined with oppressive wall decorations, such as framed portraits of previous Tsars that Gudonov can in no way live up to, contrasts with a semi-circular more angelic upper half where the murder is constantly reenacted. The lower half of the set particularly relates to Gudonov’s lonely guilt, especially as he lives in the shadow of Ivan the Terrible, who, by contrast, is likened to the glory of the sun.
Overall, Boris Gudonov is exceptional in perfectly capturing the Tsar’s emotional instability through the stage, props, and the magnificent chorus. Although it can feel daunting going to the opera as a student, discounted tickets are available by signing up to the Young ROH scheme. To be able to experience such grandiose tragedy accompanied by a full, dominating orchestra, is certainly worth looking into; revivals of operas, however old, are more relevant than one might think.
Boris Gudonov is on at The Royal Opera House until the 3rd of July and tickets are available here.
Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor