It must be something Russian. First War and Peace, then Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Khovanshchina, and now ENO comes up trumps once more with a blazing new production of Mussorgsky s epic depicting the life and death of Tsar Boris.
Francesca Zambello returns to ENO to direct here for the first time since her acclaimed production of Khovanshchina, Mussorgsky s other major opera, back in 1994. With designers Hildegard Bechtler and Nicky Gillibrand, Zambello places the action in a non time specific setting, which works fine. What is most important is the faultless way she directs this masterpiece with a cinematic sweep, consistently providing arresting stage images aided by Wolfgang Goebbel s superb lighting. It is the seriousness of this staging which impresses so much. It s not an easy opera, there are no hit numbers, but an appreciative and packed house watched, listened and absorbed the events unfolding on the stage with rapt attentiveness. It goes to show that this particular audience does not need patronising (as in Freeman s Otello) and believes in the high seriousness of opera performed to exacting international standards.
The cast, without exception, is faultless; all the roles being cast from strength. As Boris, John Tomlinson gives a magnificent portrayal as the tortured Tsar, using his superb voice to telling effect. His death scene is sung and acted in an unutterably moving way; Tomlinson really is one of the greatest singing actors of the day. With a role that can dominate, it is down to his and Zambello s skill that Boris becomes an integrated part of the action, never upstaging those around him.
Robert Tear, making an all too rare appearance on the Coliseum stage, is an oily Shuisky whilst ENO stalwart John Connell sings a gravely beautiful Pimen. As the pretender to the thrown, Dmitry, John Daszak deploys his well schooled tenor effectively and Mark Le Broq and Jeremy White as Varlaam and Misail lighten the proceedings with a couple of good cameos. Perhaps the most moving performance on stage, however, is Timothy Robinson s Simpleton. It is he who ends the opera, bemoaning the fate of the Russian people who celebrate their new Tsar whilst he places his head in a noose. This is his ENO debut and I hope he returns soon.
Architect of all this musical success is Paul Daniel. That he believes in the score is never in doubt, but I was taken aback by the sheer beauty he finds in the score, which is supported by superlative playing from the ENO orchestra. The choral singing is shattering, and guess what? Every single word from every single character is perfectly audible. Altogether, this is an evening to restore faith in the seriousness of opera, ENO s ability to stage opera at an international level, and in the human spirit. This production must be seen!