Modest Mussorgsky

Boris Godunov

An Opera in Four Acts and a Prologue

Performance History

Composing to his own libretto after Pushkin's "comedy" on the same subject and after Karamzin's History of the Russian Empire, Mussogsky completed Boris Godunov in 1868/9. It contained these scenes:
  1. The courtyard of the Novodievichy monastery
  2. A square in the Kremlin
  3. Pimen's cell
  4. An inn on the Lithuanian border
  5. Boris's apartment in the Kremlin
  6. A square before St.Basil's Cathedral
  7. A reception hall in the Kremlin

As this work was rejected by the Maryinsky Opera Mussorgsky revised the opera in 1871, adding a so-called love interest and substantially changing some scenes.

As a result there are two very different versions of Act II. The composer added folk songs to portray Boris's home life. He also altered the text and melodic structure of Boris' Act II monologue ``Dostig ya vysshei vlasti'' (I stand supreme in power), changes which in one view make it less blatant, giving it contrast and depth, but in another view soften and weaken it.

The two versions' strengths create a dilemma for conductors and directors in each presentation of the opera. The differences make it expensive for the Mussorgsky lover who has to see many productions and collect various sets of recordings to experience all of the music for Boris. These decisions for producer and audience are complicated further by the several orchestrations of the work made by other composers.

In nearly every way the 1869 Original Version is starker and more concise, but cruder than the 1874 Final Version, which is complex and subtle, but tends to sprawl.

No matter how spectacular or beautiful they are, the Polish scenes make for a long night in the theatre. Despite the brilliant Polonaise and the stirring use of folk rhythms and melodies throughout the act, critics have attacked the Polish scenes for superficiality. However, Mussorgsky was accurately depicting the superficial emotions of two plotting self-seekers and of the deceitful Jesuit, an agent intent on promoting what to the Orthodox was a false religion.

The Final Version suffers from the lack of the very strong St. Basil's scene, in which truth, in the form of the Holy Fool, confronts Boris. The incorporation of the urchins stealing the Holy Fool's kopek into the Kromy Forest scene weakens his contribution to the drama.

Ignoring the minor variants of some of the scenes, the complete list of scenes possible for the opera is:

Three scenes from the opera were given in a charity performance in 1873 with Osip Petrov as Varlaam, Komisarzhevsky as Dimitri, and with Platonova. The opera was accepted by the Maryinsky opera, St. Petersburg and performed with Ivan Melnikov as Boris, and the previously mentioned singers, under Eduard Napravnik, on 8 February 1874. It was given twenty-one times.

Rimsky-Korsakov, in an effort to make the opera more acceptable to contemporary taste, revised and reorchestrated the work in 1896. He again revised it for performance in 1908. It is in this form that it was introduced to the West and performed there and in Russia until the last few decades, when Mussorgsky's original orchestration became accepted in most countries except Russia, which clung to the Rimsky-Korsakov version.

Rimsky-Korsakov cut the opera and reversed the order of the last two scenes, making it into a drama of the individual and less a national folk drama. He altered harmonies, with effects on the relationship between word and tone, obscuring Mussorgsky's musical commentary on the text. His lush version is at its fullest in the climax to the so-called love duet at the end of the Polish Act. Its Dimitri Tiomkin-influencing ecstasy probably contributes to the labelling of these scenes as superficial. Mussorgsky's own ending depicts the characters' cynicism.

Rimsky-Korsakov's second version, essentially a cutting and re-orchestration of Mussorgsky's final version, premiered at the Paris Opera on 19 May 1908 with Feodor Chaliapin. The London premiere followed on 24 June 1913 at Drury Lane, again with Chaliapin. It reached the Met on 19 March 1913 with Adamo Didur as Boris, Paul Althouse as Dimitri, Louise Homer, Angelo Bada, Leon Rothier and Andres de Segurola, directed by Golovin and conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Already the presence of leading singer-actors showed why singers love Mussorgsky: in just a few bars they can make an indelible impression.

The St.Basil's scene was later re-orchestrated by Ippolitov-Ivanov. As the confrontation between illegitimate ruler and truth in the form of the common man was essential to Soviet thinking, the current Bolshoi Boris remains the Mussorgsky / Rimsky-Korsakov / Ippilitov-Ivanov.

Unfortunately Rimsky's interference gave the imprimatur to others who felt they should embellish the masterpiece and frequently one hears a performance, especially of the Rimsky, in which a tizzy bit of orchestration pops out, never heard before, which makes one wonder about its origins. In 1969 the Australian Opera, which had revived and stuck to Mussorgsky's Final Version, gave the baton to Tibor Paul, who added his own lush gush to create a climax redolent of Dimitri Tiomkin's Duel in the Sun motifs.

Formidable efforts have been made to reconcile contemporary taste with Mussorgsky's uncompromising score. The Oxford Dictionary of Opera cites a version by Meligailis in Riga in 1924. Karol Rathaus and John Gutman fashioned one for the Met's English language Boris, premiered 6 March 1953. Shostakovich made two versions, one for a film and one for the stage version. In the stage version many of his changes are very much in the mode of early to middle twentieth-century, but as many chords sound overstated as others sound understated: Mussorgsky was after truth and there is much showmanship in the Shostakovich. Some writers defend his version as more "authentic", which seems absurd in the presence of the more authentic and readily available Mussorgsky Original and Final scores.

contributed by John Lanigan-O'Keeffe; © 1998

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:47:03 PST