BORIS GUDONOV | London, Royal Opera House

At turns ponderous, comic and brutal, Mussorgsky’s magnetic 1869 opera tells the tale of guilt-plagued Tsar Boris (the marvellous Bryn Terfel), and his journey from coronation to cataclysm, in two straight hours of kaleidoscopic colour and imperial psychomachia. This is the first revival of Richard Jones’s surgically surreal, 2016 production, which shines in its spectacular set-pieces. The subtly surreal set design (Miriam Beuther), colourful costume (Nicky Gillibrand), and dynamic movement direction (Danielle Urbas, after Ben Wright) conspire perfectly to dramatise the complexities of a nation and monarch at war with itself.

Cast, chorus and orchestra capture with clarity the disturbing liturgical grandeur of Mussorgsky’s score. Marc Albrecht conducts with a real sense of pace and colour, deftly contrasting swelling set-pieces with brittle soliloquies, as we watch Boris’s demise. The Royal Opera Chorus, directed by William Spaulding, outdoes itself. We marvel as countervailing currents and emotions mingle in the harmonic cacophony of a coronation ‘Gloria”, pricking every last hair on the back of the neck.

Joining Terfel, Boris’ children are played with particular pathos by two superb young stars (Haegee Lee, Joshua Adams). But there is also humour: John Tomlinson is gloriously funny as Falstaffian monk Varlaam, and Harry Nicoll is perfect as his side-kick Missal, providing dexterous accompaniment for his friend on the spoons.

Amidst the ambitious commitment to surreal motifs and the magnificent crowd-scenes, the fraught interaction between Boris and his Boyars feels staid, detracting somewhat from the thrill of his public demise. That said, for all the formal invention, this tale of guilt and expiation still feels strikingly bold and relevant. Could the tale of a bombastic ruler elected on a wave of populism, destroyed by the skeletons in his closet possibly have direct parallels? Could Boris’ fate haunt leaders today? Only time will tell…

Watch Bryn Terfel in this majestic tragedy until 3 July 2019.

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