Opera Review





The English National Opera presents

Boris Gudunov



photo by Clive Barda


By Modest Musorgsky

Directed by Tim Albery

Conducted by Edward Gardner

Peter Rose, John Graham-Hall, Brindley Sherratt and Robert Murray


10 Nov - 1 Dec 08




1ay Couzen

A review by Rosie Fiore for EXTRA! EXTRA!


The curtain rises in the Coliseum to reveal heavy wooden walls and a claustrophobically low ceiling. The ‘box’ we gaze into is nightmarishly askew, and the floor slants alarmingly. As the music builds and the lights gradually brighten, we see with a shock that the floor is covered in bodies… the chorus, uniformly dressed in grey, is lying huddled, awaiting news. Will Boris Gudunov accept the call to become Tsar? Armed soldiers enter and harangue the peasants into cheering for Boris. Will he accept their call?

It seems he will, but with a heavy heart. We see him crowned, but it soon becomes apparent that Boris bears a terrible secret. He ordered the murder of Dmitry, heir to the throne, thereby opening the way for his own ascension to the crown. Can he live with his guilt? As Russia plunges into poverty and starvation and misery is visited on his own family, must he admit his own culpability? As a pretender to the throne, claiming to be Dmitry, draws closer to Moscow, Boris begins his descent into guilty madness, plagued by visions of the murdered child.

Suddenly, the heavy wooden box that comprises the set makes sense: we are trapped in Boris’ nightmare, in the grinding poverty and starvation of his people, and there is no escape.

Everything about this production is visually impressive: the sheer numbers of the chorus who inhabit the space, calling out to their Tsar: the opulent glamour of the clothes worn by Boris’ children in contrast to the muddy grays of the peasants, the great slabs of wood that slide open and fold out to reveal different scenes, and the stark and dramatic lighting.

The ENO has chosen to present Musorgsky’s original seven-scene version of the opera, which preceded the better-known, re-orchestrated and adapted version by Rimsky-Korsakov. The score is stark and often discordant, and the gloom, both musical and dramatic, is relentless. While one would not expect a frothy chorus or a sparkly soprano aria, one can’t help feeling that some variation in tone and pace might make the piece less depressing.

Boris is a tragic hero in the Shakespearean mould: like Macbeth, he is driven mad with guilt, like Lear, he learns compassion through his own sorrow. It’s unusual for the title role in an opera to be sung by a bass, but Peter Rose brings weight and tragedy, and great vocal power to the role. John Graham-Hall as political weasel Prince Shuisky is also particularly notable.

It’s a visual feast, it’s musically unusual and impressive, and as an exercise, a fascinating vision of Musorgsky’s original intentions. But don’t go and see this expecting a light evening’s entertainment. This is as heavy, dark and Russian as black bread.



photo by Clive Barda


November 10, 13, 19, 21, 24, 26 & December 1 at 7.30pm
November 15, 29 at 6.30pm

9 performances. Running time: 2hrs 10 mins
Sign-language interpreted performance: Nov 24
Pre-performance talk by Dennis Marks: Nov 15 at 4.45pm, London Coliseum, £4
All performances are sung and subtitled in English








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