Music: Subverting grand opera with nasty wigs

Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is one of those grand historical operas that usually come encrusted in slow-moving spectacle, trundling along like floats at the Lord Mayor’s Show. But strip away the ceremonial and you’re left with the human story of a fragile ruler haunted by a dark past. And that’s the approach taken by Richard Jones, who directs the new production at the Royal Opera House.

Jones deals in narrative, not spectacle. His stagings have a cartoon-like sharpness that cuts grandeur down to size, subversively. So, true to form, this show is Boris-lite, set somewhere between old and new world Russia, in deliberately nasty wigs and costumes that replace exotic glamour with neurotic awkwardness. It isn’t good to look at, but the central issue of the piece – Boris’s conscience dragging him towards insanity – comes through with force.

The pared-down pageantry has pace – assisted by the fact that this production uses the composer’s earliest version of the score, which has a clunky rawness but gets through the story with unusual speed. It runs here with no interval, in one unbroken span. And the continuous sweep of storytelling builds excitement in a strangely modern way. Mussorgsky was a maverick composer whose first efforts with this opera were thought brutal at the time but now seem forward-thinking.

So there’s much to say for doing the first version of the piece; and Jones presents it in an interesting manner. But I can’t pretend I didn’t miss the glamour: there’s a mystical allure of incense, jewels and icons about Boris that supports its sound-world. And I also missed the presence of a massive, Russian-sounding bass voice in the title role. Bryn Terfel doesn’t have it; he’s miscast. And he’s upstaged here by John Tomlinson: a noted Boris in the past, reduced now to the smaller role of Varlaam the Falstaffian monk but making a huge impact with the relatively little that he has to sing. Together with Antonio Pappano’s magisterial conducting, it’s the chief thing that commends the show.

Sir Malcolm Arnold didn’t go to Eton but his scores have ended up there, given to the Eton College library on long loan by his daughter. And they’re being put to good use, as the basis for a range of music education projects that will run not only in the school (where almost every boy has lessons on an instrument – there’s privilege for you) but across the wider Eton/Windsor/Slough community.

They launched last week at Eton’s School Hall, with chamber and orchestral concerts of an exalted standard for a bunch of schoolboys. Better than I’ve heard in some conservatoires. It’s good to know that Britain’s future leaders are now bred with such musical intelligence.