PROMS / Getting back to the basics with Boris: Stephen Johnson reviews John Tomlinson in Boris Godunov at the Royal Albert Hall

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The Independent Culture
Original Boris or revised Boris? There may be no ideal solution, but as Opera North's Proms performance this week showed, if you deliver the first version with conviction, doubts can be sent flying. There was hardly a weak moment in the whole evening. Jeffrey Lawton's Shuisky sounded unsteady at his first entry, but as a character he was magnificent: insinuating, devious and very dangerous. Some of the semi-staged ideas looked a little sloppy, especially the precis of the murder at the start, and I could have done without Feodor's whimpering at the end - the music tells the story quite well enough without such cosmetic assistance.

Otherwise it was simply magnificent. Matthew Best was a dignified and stirring Pimen, Paul Charles Clark a very plausible hysteric on the make as Grigory - a shame we were not allowed to see and hear his apotheosis at Kromy, as Musorgsky's expanded version of 1873 would have permitted. Mark Curtis showed how the Simpleton / Holy Fool can be made crazily affecting without the nasal whine that others have chosen to adopt, and Brian Bannatyne-Scott was the drunken mendicant Varlaam to the life.

One could go on listing triumphs, but two must stand out. As Boris, John Tomlinson was compelling in his every facet - whether asserting himself as the ultimate power, or torturing himself at the thought of what he had to do to get it - and the dark, sonorous power of his singing could have been Russian, even with the sound of the English translation. And the crowd scenes were wonderfully characterised, even if they inspired a moment of regret. What might the Opera North Chorus have made of the Kromy scene in combination with Paul Charles Clark's Grigory?

Enough that we heard it as it was, and with the magnificent support of the English Northern Philharmonia under Paul Daniel. The urgency and richly variegated character of this Boris derived in no small part from their contribution. And listening to the sweeping lines and bold orchestral colours in this performance, I found it difficult to imagine how Musorgsky's 'primitive' writing and scoring could be improved in any way. The Coronation Scene isn't nearly as brilliant or as gorgeous as in Rimsky's version? It isn't meant to be. This is the terror and the pain - not the glamour - of power. And as for those bells - the sound of death pervades them right from the start.

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