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8.110242-44 - MUSSORGSKY: Boris Godunov (Christoff, Gedda) (1952)
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
The masters of Russian opera owed much to Italian models. Glinka, father of the genre, spent valuable time in Italy; Tchaikovsky loved to holiday there, soaking up the ambience; and even that rough diamond Mussorgsky took inspiration from an Italian – in his case, Verdi. In 1862 La forza del destino was given its première in St Petersburg: it was an episodic ‘revenger’s tragedy’ in which the action was played out against a background of tavern, church and war, with the chorus usually representing the common people. It even featured a comic monk. La forza del destino cast a long shadow on Mussorgsky’s masterpieces Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina – and in view of the reputation it gained for bringing bad luck, perhaps it put the evil eye on Boris. Certainly this magnificent opera, which seems to enshrine the very essence of the Russian soul, has had a tortuous route to establishing itself in the repertoire.
Mussorgsky wrote his first version of Boris Godunov in 1868-69 at the prompting of the historian Vladimir Nikolsky, basing it on the drama by Pushkin and the history of Russia by Karamzin – Nikolsky and Vladimir Stasov assisted with the libretto. This seven-scene version immediately ran into trouble, paralleling what would happen to Janácˇek a generation later. It had virtually no female interest and the music seemed barbaric to the refined tastes of the day. Mussorgsky’s particular genius was akin to the aspect he presented in the famous portrait by Repin, rather rough and unkempt, but what he heard in his mind’s ear was truer to nature and the spirit of Mother Russia than the music being produced by his friends among the ‘Mighty Handful’ (Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui and Borodin). Rebuffed by the committee of the Imperial Theatres, he produced a second version, cutting the scene which took place outside St Basil’s Cathedral, inserting a new act (some of which, already written, had been left out of his first version) and composing a new ending set in the Kromy Forest. Boris’s monologue became more like an aria and his Clock Scene made its appearance. That unforgettable character of the Simpleton was transferred from the St Basil’s scene to the Kromy Forest and the opera now ended with his lament. Other changes increased the female involvement but the main gain on this front was the advent of Marina. This second version of Boris was influenced not just by Dargomyzhsky but by Rimsky-Korsakov, with whom Mussorgsky stayed during its composition (Rimsky-Korsakov was working on The Maid of Pskov).
The Coronation Scene was performed in concert in 1872 and the Polish Act and the Inn Scene were done at the Mariinsky in 1873; but the opera as a whole was not heard until 1874, and even then cuts were made by the conductor Napravník. Yet the work had a considerable success. Boris was considered interesting even by its detractors but by the time Mussorgsky died, aged just 42, in 1881 it had fallen into disuse. His friend Rimsky-Korsakov started tinkering with it in 1888 and by 1896 had produced a new version, rescored, changed in many details and with the order of the final two scenes reversed so that the opera ended with Boris’s death. Two years later Fyodor Chaliapin took the title rôle for the first time and it was he who made the work famous. In the 1920s Mussorgsky’s original score was published, but it made little headway – more notice was taken of Ippolitov-Ivanov’s rescoring of the St Basil’s scene, which was sometimes added to the rest (with the duplicated section of the Simpleton’s part excised). A 1928 Leningrad production of the Mussorgsky version was badly presented and failed, despite having Mark Reizen as Boris.
The Rimsky-Korsakov’s version revised in 1906-08, with cuts restored, did better, conquering all the major operatic centres through Chaliapin (other noted exponents of Boris were Adam Didur, Robert Radford, Carlo Galeffi, Vanni-Marcoux, André Pernet, Alexander Kipnis and Ezio Pinza). In Russia the Rimsky version also ruled, although at the Bolshoy the St Basil’s scene was restored and the Kromy Forest scene was placed in its rightful position at the end. This version was recorded in the late 1940s – Russian record buyers could choose between Reizen and Alexander Pirogov as Boris. Meanwhile in 1940 Shostakovich made his own orchestration, which sought to mediate between the ideals of Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. To be fair to Rimsky-Korsakov, he wrote of his effort: ‘Mussorgsky’s violent admirers frowned a bit, regretting something… But having arranged the new revision of Boris Godunov, I had not destroyed its original form, had not painted out the old frescoes for ever. If ever the conclusion is arrived at that the original is better, worthier than my revision, mine will be discarded, and Boris Godunov will be performed according to the original score’. In the past few decades that point has been reached: Mussorgsky’s original has taken over and now it is Rimsky-Korsakov’s score which is endangered.
Whichever version you espouse, Mussorgsky’s opera is a masterwork full of magnificent music and pungent characterisation. Folk-song inspires many of its pages – a notable example is the great chorus in the Prologue, based on a tune Beethoven had already used on a smaller scale in his Second Razumovsky Quartet. Even more than most Russian music of the nineteenth century, Boris Godunov is also redolent of liturgical chant at almost every turn. Larger-than-life characters such as Varlaam, Missail, the Hostess and the Simpleton provide diversions from the tortured character of Boris himself who is on stage for a relatively short time and always the chorus is there, representing the timeless stoicism of the Russian people.
Boris Christoff, Chaliapin’s successor in the West, was singing music from the opera in public as early as 1944 and soon began programming Mussorgsky’s songs, but he did not engage with the composer on stage until February 1947, when he sang Pimen in Rome to the Boris of Tancredi Pasero. That September they repeated their rôles at La Scala, with Nicola Rossi-Lemeni as Varlaam; in February 1948 Christoff essayed the rôle of Dosifei in Khovanshchina at Trieste, with Rossi-Lemeni as Khovansky, and the following month Christoff replaced the scheduled Pasero as Boris at Cagliari, with Tullio Serafin conducting. Christoff and Rossi-Lemeni became a double-act in Khovanshchina, finally in February 1949 reaching La Scala, where their conductor was Issay Dobrowen. Meanwhile Christoff had sung in Mussorgsky’s Sorochintsy Fair for Italian Radio (and he would soon do it on stage). In November 1949 he sang Boris in London (doing the Rimsky version in Russian while everyone else did the Mussorgsky version in English) and across New Year 1950 he gave four performances at La Scala under Dobrowen. By the time this recording was made in 1952, he was steeped in Mussorgsky’s music and, like Chaliapin before him, knew every note of the Rimsky-Korsakov Boris. It now seems strange that he should have commandeered all three main bass rôles: a Boris with, say, Raphael Arië as Pimen and Rossi-Lemeni as Varlaam would have been a great draw, but the new tape process made it possible – Christoff-Boris and Christoff-Pimen had to confront each other in Act IV – and Dobrowen and EMI went along with the idea (which Christoff would repeat for stereo, though without Dobrowen). Whatever one thinks of the preponderance of Christoff’s tones in the finished set, he sings well enough. To have the young Gedda as the False Dmitry, Eugenia Zareska as Marina and Kim Borg as the wily Jesuit Rangoni is also marvellous, but it is for Christoff and the conducting of Dobrowen that this set – the first to be available worldwide is treasured by opera buffs.
Issay Dobrowen (1891-1953), born at Nizhny-Novgorod, Russia, was a child prodigy pianist. He studied composition at the Moscow Conservatory with Taneyev and piano in Vienna with Godowsky. In 1917 he became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory and in 1919 made his conducting début at the Bolshoy. In 1922 he went to Dresden as one of Fritz Busch’s assistants and was soon among Europe’s best-known conductors, holding posts in Vienna, Sofia, Oslo and Budapest. He first appeared in America in 1931 and in the late 1930s assisted in creating the Palestine Orchestra. During the war he worked in Sweden and from 1945 he resumed his international career, making recordings with the Philharmonia in London. A fine composer, he was also a talented opera director. He died in Oslo after a long illness.
Eugenia Zareska (1910-79) was from Rava Ruska and studied in Lvov with Adam Didur before going for further study to Vienna, where in 1938 she won a singing competition. Having had more lessons from Anna Bahr-Mildenburg, she made her début in 1939. From 1940 she lived in Italy, studying and making her début at La Scala in 1941 as Dorabella in Così fan tutte. The following year she was a member of the Rome company. After the war she was popular in Paris, where Marina was one of her roles, and London, appearing at Covent Garden (as Carmen among others), the Cambridge Theatre (as Rosina) and Glyndebourne (as Dorabella). She made a number of recordings.
Nicolai Gedda (born 1925) hails from Stockholm and was adopted by his aunt and her Russian husband. From 1928 to 1934 he lived in Leipzig, where his adopted father, a bass, was the Russian Orthodox cantor. His singing teachers were Carl Martin Öhman in Stockholm (from 1949) and Paola Novikova in New York (from 1957). After a year in the company’s school, he made his début in April 1952 at the Stockholm Royal Opera as Chapelou in Adam’s Le Postillon de Lonjumeau, auditioned for Walter Legge, who was in Stockholm, and was engaged for this recording. He then received a contract for La Scala. Since then he has been one of the world’s leading tenors, famed equally in Russian, French and Italian rôles. He retired from the stage in 1997 but continued to give recitals. His myriad recordings include many opera sets, recitals of arias, art songs, Verdi’s Requiem and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius.
Andrzej Bielecki (1907-1959), from Cracow, studied law at its University before learning singing with Walek-Walevski, Kniagin and Bernardino Rizzi. Not until 1938 did he make his début in Cracow, in Moniuszko’s Halka. During the war he was interned by the Germans in Italy, where he had been studying with Pesci in Rome, but he escaped during an Allied bombing raid and was engaged by the San Carlo, Naples, making his début in 1944 as Cavaradossi in Tosca. He gave concerts for Allied troops and in 1946 toured Great Britain as a recitalist. He had already sung Shuysky on stage several times with Christoff before making this, his only major recording.
Boris Christoff (1914-93) was born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, and began as a choral and concert singer. In 1942 he was given a royal scholarship to study in Milan with Riccardo Stracciari, but in the aftermath of the war he was interned in a labour camp. He made his operatic début as Colline in La bohème at Reggio Calabria in March 1946 and until his last performance, as Verdi’s Attila at Parma in 1983, was a notable force in Italian opera. He retired from recitals in 1986. Politics kept him out of the United States until 1956 and he did not sing in New York until a 1980 concert but he was a favourite throughout Europe and in South America. Apart from Boris, his most acclaimed rôles were Philip II in
Don Carlo, Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra and Méphistophélès in Faust; he also had a wide repertoire of songs and oratorios and was renowned as a recitalist. Among his many recordings were opera sets (Philip, Méphistophélès and Boris each done twice), aria recitals, a compendium of Russian songs and a complete set of Mussorgsky’s songs.
Kim Borg (1919-2000), born in Helsinki, was almost put off singing by a bad teacher and went into engineering, but persisted in voice training with Adelaide von Skilondz in Stockholm and Magnus Andersen in Copenhagen. He made his recital début in 1947 and after singing Colline with the Aarhus company, portrayed Gremin in Eugene Onégin with success in Copenhagen in 1952. This Boris Godunov was the first of many recordings for him, including opera sets, recitals of arias, the Verdi Requiem (twice), the Dvorˇák Requiem, The Dream of Gerontius, Mussorgsky songs in his own orchestrations, songs by other Russian composers, Kilpinen and Sibelius – and some by himself. He made his début at the Met in New York in 1959 and sang both bass and baritone parts all over Europe.
Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov has had a varied history. It has a libretto by the composer, derived from a tragedy by Pushkin and later including other material from supposedly historical sources. The original version of the work was completed in 1869 and consisted of seven scenes, grouped in four parts or acts. Mussorgsky revised the work, rewriting some of the material of the six scenes he retained from the first version and adding three more, making nine scenes that form a prologue and four acts. The revised version was performed in St Petersburg in 1874. Completing his work in 1896, Rimsky-Korsakov re-orchestrated the opera, making cuts, which he restored in a second revision in 1906, with further re-orchestration and some additions.
The present version follows former practice in using Rimsky-Korsakov’s version. In more recent times it has been possible to hear the composer’s original and revised versions of the opera.
 The first scene of the opera is set in the courtyard of the Novodevichiy Monastery in Moscow. Groups of people enter and the Boyars, led by Prince Shuysky cross, entering the monastery.  A police-officer, brandishing a stick, orders the people to kneel, which they do, calling out, as they have been told to, for a new Tsar. He goes towards the monastery door, returning to bid the people shout together, which they do, under duress, without understanding the reason.  Shchelkalov, secretary to the council of Boyars, appears on the threshold of the monastery and greets the people, telling them that Boris still cannot be persuaded to become Tsar.  A group of blind pilgrims enters, with their guides, distributing holy amulets among the people, as they go towards the monastery.
 In the great square in Moscow, between the Cathedrals of the Assumption and the Archangels, the people are gathered. The bells ring out and a procession enters of guards, sons of the Boyars, Andrey Shchelkalov with the Tsar’s staff of office, Boyars, deacons and others, entering the Cathedral of the Assumption.  Prince Shuysky hails the Tsar, echoed by the people and the Boyars.  Boris appears, with his son Fyodor and daughter Xenia, haunted by his own fears, but openly calling for God’s blessing on his reign and proclaiming a feast for all,  to the acclamation of the people.
 The new scene is set in a cell in the Chudov Monastery. An old monk, Pimen, is writing his chronicle, with one more deed to record.  A chorus of monks is heard, calling on God to banish evil. The novice Grigory, who has been sleeping, wakes up, exclaiming on the nightmare he has had again and admiring Pimen’s diligence and tranquillity. He calls on Pimen to bless him.  He tells Pimen that while the old man was working, he himself saw in his dream how he climbed to a height above Moscow, how the people pointed and jeered at him and how he fell from the tower, to wake up. Pimen has had an earlier life as a warrior, but Grigory is a mere monk. Pimen, however, praises his choice and the virtues of Tsar Ivan and his son Fyodor, who brought peace, but now Russia is ruled by a regicide.  Grigory seeks to know how old the Tsarevich was when he was murdered and Pimen tells him he would, had he lived, have been the same age as the young monk. He urges Grigory to continue his task of writing a true historical record of what happens.  He asks for his stick. The monastic choir is heard in its matins prayer. Pimen walks towards the door, but Grigory returns to exclaim against Boris, who murdered the young Tsar, and call for the justice of heaven.
 The scene has changed to that of an inn near the Lithuanian border.  A woman, polishing a pewter dish, sings to herself a folk-song. She seems to hear someone approaching. She goes on singing, but now the voices of the tramps Varlaam and Missail are heard  and she greets the supposed holy men, accompanied by Grigory, the false Dmitry, dressed now as a peasant. Varlaam calls for wine, watching Grigory, who is anxious to cross the frontier into Lithuania. Varlaam assures him that he and Missail are quite happy since they escaped from their monastery.  They are served with wine and Varlaam starts to sing his song of Kazan, about the exploits of Tsar Ivan in subduing the Tartars.  He tries to make Grigory drink with him, but the latter refuses. Varlaam, having drunk his fill, nods off, while Grigory seeks to learn of the hostess how far it is to the border. She warns him that the soldiers have orders to stop a suspected criminal, but tells him how to avoid them.  Varlaam murmurs in his sleep, the fragment of a drunken song, which fits with the sound of pounding at the door. Soldiers enter and their leader questions Varlaam and Missail, bringing out a paper that he tells Varlaam to read out aloud, suspecting him of being the escaped heretic, to be taken on the Tsar’s orders, alive or dead.  Grigory admits that he can read and starts to read the proclamation that orders his own capture, trying to make the description fit Varlaam. The soldiers seize Varlaam, who snatches the paper and makes out enough of it to make it clear that it is Grigory they are looking for. The latter, brandishing a knife, makes his escape through the window, as the others shout after him.
 Xenia and Fyodor, children of Boris Godunov, sit in a room in the Kremlin, with their nurse, who is busy at work. Fyodor is reading, while Xenia sings sadly of the death of her betrothed.  The nurse tries to comfort her by singing the Song of the Flea, with its mournful story of the flea’s death. Fyodor asks for something more cheerful and  they start a clapping game together.  This is interrupted by the arrival of Boris, who tries to comfort Xenia, sending her away with the nurse to join the other women.  Fyodor is looking at the map of Russia, which extends so far.  Alone, Boris recalls that he has now held supreme power for five years and still seeks the tranquillity once promised; his daughter Xenia’s betrothed has died and he is haunted by remorse for the murder of the young Tsarevich.  The sound of the women is heard from outside and a Boyar enters, announcing the approach of Prince Shuysky, but telling Boris that Shuysky has met a group of conspirators and a messenger from Poland. Boris orders that he should be arrested.  Fyodor tries to lighten his burden by his story of the parrot, refused a sweetmeat by a nurse, which quarrelled and continued to sulk and then attacked all the women. It was the parrot that disturbed his father’s thoughts. Boris, still disquieted, praises his son and wishes that he might be able to pass the crown to him at once.  Shuysky enters and is reproached by Boris.  Shuysky tells him of the news from Poland of a pretender to the throne and the danger he offers, if he once enters Russia, using, as he does, the name of the murdered Tsarevich, Dmitry.  Boris tells Fyodor to leave them and seeks assurance from Shuysky that the boy that was killed was really the Tsarevich, telling him to reveal all he knows. ! Shuysky describes the scene, with thirty bodies rotting and the body of the Tsarevich, his face undisfigured, like an angel, lying dead.  Boris tells Shuysky to leave him and, left to himself, gives way to the horror of his thoughts, as the clock strikes, calling on God for mercy.
 In her room in Sandomierz Castle in Poland her women dress Marina’s hair, and sing in praise of her beauty.  She tells them to stop, preferring stories of Poland’s glory.  In an aria she confesses that she is tired of life, but her ambition centres on Dmitry and the throne of Russia.  She is joined by the Jesuit Rangoni, who urges her to consider the Church and to do her utmost to convert Russia and earn the title of saint.  He tells her to use her charms to captivate Dmitry, in the service of the Church. When she refuses, in anger, Rangoni threatens her with damnation and she relents.
 In the castle garden, by the fountain, Dmitry waits in the moonlight to meet his beloved Marina, and is now resolved to declare his love openly.  To the sound of a Polacca, guests emerge from the castle, led by Marina, rejecting the advances of the gentleman who escorts her. All are united against the Russians, but feel that Marina is of no use to their cause. They re-enter the castle, with Marina, who orders wine for her guests. She returns to join Dmitry, who now tells her of his love.  Marina, however, makes it clear that she has her own ambitions and would never agree to be his mistress only.  He kneels to her, pleading for her love, but she mocks him, telling him that he should be thinking of the defeat of Tsar Boris. He reveals his plan to lead his followers at dawn to attack Russia and take the Kremlin, telling her that she will be mocked for her rejection of him.  Now she asks him to forgive her, pledging her loyalty to him and his cause. They are united and Rangoni, as he passes by, now sees with delight the success of his plans.
 In a forest glade near Kromi a crowd have taken the Boyar Khrushchyov prisoner. They gag him and tie him to the trunk of a tree, seating an old woman by him and mocking him.  They continue their mockery, ironically praising the Boyar and Tsar Boris.  The Simpleton runs in, wearing a hat of tin and carrying in his hand a sandal made of osiers. He is barefooted and followed by a group of jeering urchins. They are silenced by some of the bystanders and the Simpleton sits on a rock and sings of the moonshine, his song turning to prayer. The urchins mock him again, with pretended respect, tapping him on his tin hat. The Simpleton tells them he has a kopek and when they pretend not to believe him, he takes it out of his hat and shows it to the boys, who copy him, seize the kopek and run away.  The sound of Varlaam and Missail is heard, as they approach. The Simpleton lies down and pretends to sleep, as the two gradually come nearer, singing of the crimes and wickedness of Tsar Boris. The crowd takes up the same sentiments, eager for revolution and calling for the death of Boris.  The sound of a Latin hymn is heard, as the Jesuits Lavitsky and Chernikovsky approach. At the urging of Varlaam the crowd seizes them and drags them away into the forest.  Trumpets are heard and soldiers enter, with Dmitry on a white horse and greeted by the people, by the Boyar, who is released and hymned by the Jesuits Lavitsky and Chernikovsky, who follow him. The sound of mourning bells is heard and fires are seen burning in the distance.  The Simpleton, left alone, sings of bloodshed, fire and misery.
 The final scene is set in the Granovitaya Palace in the Kremlin. In the great assembly hall the Boyars meet, determined that the usurper should be captured and put to death.  They await Prince Shuysky, without whom they can do nothing. Shuysky joins them, telling how he had observed Tsar Boris and was worried about his sanity; the Tsar had stammered wildly, suffering some hidden sorrow and speaking to the ghost of Dmitry. The Boyars do not believe him but Shuysky adds that Boris had told the ghost of the boy to go. Boris enters, at first unobserved, repeating Shuysky’s words and then coming forward to threaten Shuysky with death. The Boyars are alarmed at the Tsar’s appearance, but Shuysky tells him that an old holy man seeks to see him. Boris orders the old man to be brought in, hoping that he will bring him peace of mind.  Pimen enters and looks fixedly at Boris, explaining the reason for his visit. He tells him of how an old shepherd came to him, blind from childhood and incurable by any herbs or charms; one night the shepherd dreamed that the voice of a child called him to go to the city of Uglich to pray at the tomb of Dmitry, the murdered Tsarevich, in the cathedral. The old man had done as he was bidden and at once recovered his sight. Boris falls back, fainting. Regaining his senses, he calls for his son and bids Pimen to the cloister again. Shuysky hurries away to find Fyodor. Boyars go in search of the Patriarch of the Monastery of Miracles. Fyodor runs in, throwing himself into his father’s arms.  Boris now bids his son farewell, for he is dying. Fyodor must now succeed him, however the throne had first been gained; he must distrust the disloyal Boyars in Lithuania and punish them. His voice grows weaker, as he bids his son be a just ruler, honouring the saints and protecting his sister. He seeks the blessing of God and the angels on the boy.  The funeral bell is heard and the sound of a choir in a hymn of mourning. Boris is near to death, still haunted by his crimes and fearing what death may bring. The Boyars and religious enter and Boris rises to assert his power, before falling back in his chair, able only to point to his son Fyodor, the new Tsar.
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