Saturday 22 November 2008

Boris Godunov…or the Curse of English National Opera reaches the Music Director

Once upon a time ENO excelled at this kind of ensemble show. The Zambello/Edwards Khovanschina remains one of my personal operatic greats. Sadly, this new production of Boris Godunov fails almost completely to live up to that pedigree, and a large measure of responsibility for that failure must, I regret to say, be placed at the door of Edward Gardner, who up to now has been about the only saving grace the company currently possesses.

First a word or two about the production. I have known Tim Albery productions to be stunningly good (his Scottish Opera Ring Cycle) and stunningly awful (his Scottish Opera Don Giovanni). This production falls someway between the two. It isn’t that the earthy floor, the wooden walls, and the moveable platforms with the odd piece of furniture (more evidence of ENO budget worries?) for the indoor scenes are totally unsuitable, but they don’t set the stage alight either. However, it is with the organisation of the masses of Russians in their different groups, and the individual soloists that the problems start. The ENO Chorus used, in this kind of piece, to give you a sense that you were watching a distinctive collection of individuals. This it fails to do. Moreover, one of the strengths of the ENO Khovanschina was the brilliant delineation of the different groups (Old Believers, peasants, Streltsy). There are fewer groups here, but the differentiation is much less successful – particularly disappointing is the Boyers council. More worrying was the quality of their musical performance. Diction was very muddy, and at times they didn’t all quite seem to be together themselves or with the orchestra.

Most of the supporting soloists are passable, but not particularly gripping, with only Robert Murray’s Simpleton really standing out. And what of Boris. The press has not been kind to Peter Rose’s performance and for once I am in accord with them. It isn’t that his vocal performance is weak per se, but I never believed a word he was singing. Given that the drama of the piece hinges on one’s believing that Boris is wracked with guilt over the murder of an innocent child this presents something of a problem. A contributory factor here is undoubtedly Rose’s acting, which is dreadful, and where Albery’s direction has either been non-existent or failed to take root. I can’t remember the last time I saw such an unconvincing death scene.

But the biggest problem this production suffers from is the lack of drive from the pit – the last thing I would have expected to result from an orchestra under Gardner’s direction. It really was as if he had gone to sleep on curtain up and woken up two and a quarter hours later. The music plods, tension fails to build, characters are singing about blood and guilt and murder but there is rarely any sense of this in the playing – no change in mood, no urgency. As time went on I wanted to scream. But of course one cannot do this even in a theatre as poorly filled as the Coliseum was tonight, so I clenched my fists, bit my lip and wished that I had Mrs Pollard’s knack of being able to fall asleep at the drop of the hat – it was certainly the reaction the show deserved.

Last night when drafting this review I was quite angry, but in the cold light of day it all just seems rather sad. This kind of show used to be ENO’s bread and butter – this failure is a good yard stick of the mess the company is currently in. And apart from Gardner in other repertoire there have been few signs that there is anybody in the company with the vision necessary to get them out.

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