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Robert J Farr
MusicWeb International, July 2011

Recognized today as its composer’s masterpiece and one of the most important operas of its genre, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov had a difficult birth and a chequered life. The composer created his own libretto from the historical tragedy of the same name by Alexander Pushkin’s and from Nikolai Karamzin’s History of the Russian State. Its boldly contrasted succession of scenes, its swift pace and terse declamation, along with its differentiation of character by musical means ensure a powerful impact. Many of Mussorgsky’s contemporaries found his musical idiom strange and harsh.

He began the composition of Boris Godunov in October 1868 and carried on until it was finished in its first form in December 1869. To do so he gave up his Civil Servant job in St Petersburg, then the Capital of Russia. He was forced to take a similar job later, perhaps to fund the alcoholism that helped kill him in a week before his forty-second birthday in 1881. The Maryinsky Theatre rejected his efforts in 1871, considering the work lacked the normal components of an opera, there being no prima donna, love interest, ensembles or dancing and also, perhaps, in anticipation of trouble with the censors as the work delved into Russia’s troubled past and the worries of the people.

Mussorgsky added a prima female role with a love interest in a remodelled version completed in 1872; the Maryinsky also rejected this. However, extracts were given in concert in the theatre and the work accepted for publication. This time it received its premiere, with some cuts, on 27 January 1874. It was a moderate success, but after the composer’s death, leaving behind four other operas uncompleted, it fell from the repertoire. In an effort to revive interest and return it to the repertoire, his friend Rimsky-Korsakov re-orchestrated the work altering melody, harmony, keys, and dynamics making it brighter and smoother whilst also stating: I have not destroyed its original form, not painted over the old frescoes for ever. If ever the conclusion is arrived at that the original is better, then mine will be discarded and Boris Godunov will be performed according to the original score. The Rimsky-Korsakov version was premiered in 1896 and with further modification in 1908. This held sway under the influence of Chaliapin, Christoff and Ghiaurov in the title role all of whom recorded their interpretation of Boris in this form. I was fortunate to see the latter two in live performances of the Rimsky version at Covent Garden before Mussorgsky’s own replaced it in a renowned production by Tarkovsky shared with the Maryinsky Theatre. Later in the 1960s there was a general, albeit gradual, move back towards Mussorgsky’s original with performances by the Welsh National Opera among others; the Welsh featuring Forbes Robinson as Boris. This move was given a further spur by the first recording of this original version, along with all the 1872 additions and featuring Martti Talvela in the title role (EMI 7 54377 2). Many major opera houses now follow this practice. This particular production originated at the Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam. It includes some additions from Mussorgsky’s second version of 1873 but does not include the major love interest of the Polish scene.

The events of the opera take place in Moscow and elsewhere between 1598 and 1605. They fall within what Russian historians callThe Times of the Troublesbetween the death of Ivan (The Terrible) in 1584 and the establishment of the Romanov dynasty. In 1584 Fyodor, a son by Ivan’s first wife succeeded him whilst her brother, Boris Godunov, established himself as the power behind the weak young king who died. Another young son by Ivan’s last wife, his seventh, named Dimitri was sent away to a Monastery in 1591 where he died in mysterious circumstances, believed killed by Boris or on his instructions. A rumour spread that he had not died but escaped a plot to kill him. This rumour gave rise to the appearance of a pretender to the throne in 1603, the so-called False Dimitri.

The sets of this production by Willy Decker are minimalist. Like his Salzburg La Traviata major motifs dominate. In this case we have a very large gilded chair symbolising the throne and power of the Tsar. In the first scene the chair is on its side. Cradled within it is a child dressed only in a loin cloth and holding the Tsar’s crown in his lap. This child is murdered by a group of trench-coated men. A portrait of his face is Decker’s second dominant motif; the portrait appearing regularly throughout as the influence of the murdered true Dimitri is felt, at least as Decker perceives it. Tall bleak grey walls flank the stage with only the back opening out as the chorus enter as Russian peasants. This opening shows the bright interior of the Tsar’s Palace for the clock and map scene as the young Fyodor shows off his learning to his father (CHs.24-33). There is no map or recognisable clock, rather a series of various gilded shapes; at least this providessomecolour. Costumes are uniformly updated to the present with the populace and soldiers in grey garb. The Boyars are business-suited and in the final scene enter with rather strange gilded headgear, perhaps to indicate their status (CHs.37-40). They, like the patrons of the Inn, bring in and sit on school-type wooden chairs.

These sparse sets and costumes perhaps illustrate the bleakness of this episodic story. One is often left cogitating on the meaning of the symbolism as when the Simpleton appears dressed only in a loin cloth (CHs.34-37). Is this like the murdered young Tsar showing naivety and innocence? It certainly thrusts much greater pressure on the singers to create a character in their acting and singing. This is particularly true of Philip Langridge’s masterfully creepy portrayal of Shuisky: smarmy, fawning and creeping, all conveyed as rarely seen. Both the singing and acting of Alex Grigoriev’s Simpleton is of a similar standard in his brief scene (CH.35). That scene ends in the most effective use of the motifs as the Simpleton pleads to Boris to slaughter his child tormentors as he did the young Tsarevich (CH.36). The chair topples, multiple portraits drop around him and he is left alone on the stage. The bluff lyric tenor of Pär Lindskog as Grigory is another worthy realisation with similar quality singing and acting also coming from Marie Arnet, and particularly Brian Asawa, as Boris’s children. It is a particular treat to have a male singer as Fyodor, with Brian Asawa’s acting adding to his vocal strengths. The only non-bass among the significant remaining roles is Manuel Zapata who sings uncommonly gracefully as Missail, the second vagabond friar.

None of the clutch of basses is less than capable and distinguished in their singing and acted interpretations. As Andrei Schelkalov, secretary to the Boyars, Albert Shagidullin is a voice new to me; he is a musical and strong, even-toned singer (CH.4). Eric Halfvarson, who is often heard as the Inquisitor in Don Carlo, is cavernous in tone and acts his role with distinction (CHs.11-16 and 41), whilst Anatoly Kocherga as the roistering Varlaam is as strong and virile in portrayal as he is in voice (CHs.20-21). However, at the end of any performance of Boris it is the singer of the name part who carries the day. In the Coronation Scene (CHs.7-10) Matti Salminen’s opening phrase was a little unsteady, but was quickly into full sonorous and characterful voice as, with Orb, Sceptre and gilded cloak he is crowned and hoisted onto the large gilded chair, now upright and with a portrait of the child being ripped from it and cast, symbolically, on the floor. Salminen’s acting is suitably avuncular in Boris’s scene with his children (CHs.24-27) when he quickly changes vocal tone and emphasis as he sends them away when Shuisky arrives (CH.30) and reaffirms the death of the infant Dimitri. In the last act, as Boris calls the Boyars and anoints Fyodor before dying, he is very good indeed in variation of tonal colour, emphasis and expression. As he clasps his son to him, in open-necked shirt devoid of the accoutrements of crown and cloak, he portrays a very vulnerable and human Tsar, whatever Boris may, or may not have done in his past in the pursuit of power. As Fyodor is hoisted onto the chair, crown on head, one wonders if he will be up to Shuisky’s slyness or will he go the way of the young Dimitri.

This production and performance is, in its minimalist way, a powerful realisation of Mussorgsky’s first version of Boris Godonov. Many will find the greyness depressing and no compensation for the vibrant choral singing or the musical representation of the score by Sebastien Weigle. They will find a completely different staging, and more raw idiomatic choral work by native Russians, in the DVD recording of the complete 1872 version in Andrei Tarkovsky’s production caught at the Maryinsky in 1990. Conducted by Valery Gergiev it features Robert Lloyd as a vocally formidable Boris matching all the Russians in their own language. Its only drawback is that it is in 4:3 format.

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