Program Notes


BORN: March 21, 1839. The village of Karevo, in the province of Pskov, Russia
DIED: March 28, 1881. Saint Petersburg

COMPOSED: Original version completed in 1869. Revised version completed in 1872

WORLD PREMIERE: February 8, 1874. Eduard Nápravník conducted, with Gennadiy Kondratyev (stage director); Ivan Melnikov (Boris). Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg

US PREMIERE: March 19, 1913. The opera was sung in Italian. Arturo Toscanini conducted, with Aleksandr Sanin (stage director) and Adamo Didur (Boris). Metropolitan Opera House, New York

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—At these performances (for this version, which is largely based on the 1869 edition. The Saint Basil scene has been cut, and the Forest near Kromy scene added). The SFS has performed excerpts from Boris Godunov on several occasions beginning with concerts in 1922, led by Alfred Hertz

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassons, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets (trumpet in F off-stage), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, Russian bells (played by Victor Avdienko), harp, and strings

DURATION: About 115 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Like some other operatic masterworks, Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov has an incredibly complex textual history—perhaps only Don Carlos and Carmen compete in this respect. Yet the widespread belief that Boris is “incomplete” is a fallacy. The composer actually left two completed versions, an 1869 original and an 1872 revision. Each could in principle be performed as written, unlike Mussorgsky’s later Khovanshchina, left incomplete at his death in 1881. But one rarely hears either Boris version straight up; you won’t do so today.

The what, why, and who of Boris’s frequent transformations have been persuasively explored in rewarding volumes by Princeton’s Caryl Emerson and University of California, Berkeley’s Richard Taruskin. Taruskin documents how—even when theaters claim to be returning to Mussorgsky’s spare original orchestration—they beef it up with effects and passages introduced from various versions. In this writer’s experience, audiences are likely to come away from any version of Boris (“pure,” compromise, or composite) both moved and fascinated by this genius-level work.

Historian Vladimir Nikolsky suggested to Mussorgsky the subject of Boris: a ruler from the so-called Time of Troubles (Smutnoe vremja), the years from 1598-1613 in which Russia faced dynastic crises, multiple foreign invasions, famines, and plagues. The social order largely collapsed. Nikolai Karamzin’s dozen-volume History of the Russian State (1816-26), the first such comprehensive effort and imbued with conservative (even autocratic) views, had inspired Alexander Pushkin’s 1827 play, written ‘na stol’ [‘for the reading desk’] rather than theatrical performance. Spanning 1598-1605, Pushkin’s Boris takes as model disjointed Shakespearean history plays—the antagonists, Boris and the “Pretender Dmitri,” never meet—to explore the crisis in Russian dynastic legitimacy after Ivan the Terrible. Ivan’s saintly, ineffectual son Tsar Fyodor let his brother-in-law and chief minister Boris Godunov rule; the Tsarevich Dmitri, Fyodor’s half-brother and heir, died in controversial circumstances. Pushkin assigns the murder to Boris; for this crime—and having the regicide refuse the throne until the crowd is manipulated to beg him—see Richard III. (Shakespeare also inspired the mix of low peasant diction and aristocratic verse.) Two pretenders arose, claiming to be Dmitri; the play and opera deal only with the first, the renegade monk Grigory Otrepiev who finds support in Catholic Poland. Censorship allowed Pushkin’s play onstage just two years before Mussorgsky began work in 1868; special legal permission was needed to portray a Tsar onstage even if not a member of the ruling Romanov dynasty (which the Time of Troubles brought to power).

As with Carmen and Don Giovanni, Mussorgsky’s title role is iconic not due to any particular vocal hurdles but because it demands charisma and profound stagecraft. Boris isn’t in fact present in that many scenes; but he must seem to permeate the drama’s every moment. The Russian tradition of baritones and basses as operatic heroes starts, as most things in Russian opera start, with Mikhail Glinka (Ivan Susanin and Ruslan), and extends through to some Prokofiev and Shostakovich leads. Dynamic baritone Ivan Melnikov created Boris (1874), Rubinstein’s Demon (1875) and Borodin’s Prince Igor (1890). Legendary singing actor Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938) portrayed Boris for decades starting in 1898. His large, theatrical but realistically detailed portrait—which galvanized the spread of Russian opera into the West, starting with Sergei Diaghilev’s pre-World War I Paris seasons—is well documented in photographs and both studio and live recordings. As with Maria Callas’s Norma, every subsequent interpreter works either with or consciously against the towering shadow of Chaliapin’s stupendous assumption.

The San Francisco Symphony presented four leading mid-twentieth century Borises in programs of concert excerpts: Alexander Kipnis (1942) and Ezio Pinza (1944) with Pierre Monteux, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni with Leopold Stokowski (1952), and George London with Josef Krips (1964). Other Borises who've made their mark worldwide include Mark Reizen, Cesare Siepi, Hans Hotter, Jerome Hines, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Martti Talvela, Yevgeny Nesterenko, and Ferruccio Furlanetto. Americans knew Mussorgsky’s opera’s title sufficiently in the 1950s—when the work enjoyed its first filming and complete Western recording (under Issay Dobrowen) and was heard in San Francisco, New York, and (on Metropolitan Opera tours) in Atlanta, Bloomington, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia—so much so that the richly allusive animated series Rocky and Bullwinkle (begun in 1959) named its sinister Cold War no-goodnik “Boris Badenov.” This in turn led generations to pronounce the Tsar’s name as “good enough.” The actual Russian sounds and stresses yield something more like “bah-REES guh-doo-NOHF”.

Mussorgsky’s initial 1869 submission was rejected by Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater by a vote of 6-to-1, due to its unconventional orchestration and lack of a prima donna. A revised submission finished by June 1872 included the Polish act, the turbulent Kromy Forest scene (played at these performances), plus added diegetic songs for the Innkeeper, children, and Nurse. Individual scenes were performed at the Mariinsky by some of its most famous artists—Melnikov, beloved veteran bass Osip Petrov (creator of Glinka’s Susanin and Ruslan among many other roles), tenor Feodor Komissarzhevsky, and dramatic soprano Iulia Platonova—winning audience and critical plaudits. A somewhat cut version of the second edition finally premiered in 1874 with the same four stars (as Boris, Varlaam, Grigory/Dmitri, and Marina). Even so, it lasted in the repertory only eight years.

After Mussorgsky’s death, composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov crafted a drastic revision, re-scoring, re-ordering, and cutting, to get his friend’s opera back onstage. Chaliapin portrayed Boris in this edition at major Russian theaters. In 1906-08 Rimsky-Korsakov revised his own revision, restoring numerous cuts but retaining his spectacular orchestration. Since then versions have been ventured by Soviet musicologist Pavel Lamm, composers Karel Rathaus (for the Met’s 1953 revival), Dmitri Shostakovich (for the Bolshoi in 1960), and David Lloyd-Jones, among others.

THE MUSIC  Through rhythm and instrumentation as well as ‘naturalistic’ word setting (a main tenet of Russian Nationalist opera, but increasingly difficult to uphold and practice in penning fluent cantilena), Mussorgsky differentiates his characters—even the smaller leading parts—so that each one has an unmistakable signature musical aura. Few of them interact dynamically in the way that conventional operatic characters behave. Boris tries to behave like a father to his children, but they (and their Nurse) are scared by his presence. He and Prince Vasily Ivanovich Shuisky (a tough, wily customer who in history became Tsar between the 1606 death of the first Pretender Dimitri and the still unforgiven 1610-12 Polish occupation of Moscow) talk at continual cross-purposes, trying to terrify one another for purposes of political control.

The monk Pimen, another bass, records Boris’s misdeeds in a chronicle and has often been held as the opera’s “objective” or “artistic” figure. But he’s actually part of the Russian deep state, using his monastic authority and status as historical witness to help Shuisky drive Boris mad. Shuisky’s gift for machination and subterfuge gives the tenor singing him opportunities for both slashing attack (as in his initial orders that the crowd hail Boris’s coronation) and sensuously cooing pseudo-folkish lines when trying to fool or entrap the Tsar or his boyar colleagues. Leading tenors who sing Grigory/Dmitri sometimes age into this great character role that can steal the show—as Wiesław Ochman, San Francisco Opera’s 1983 Pretender, suavely demonstrated as the company’s 1992 Shuisky. Yevgeny Akimov, the Shuisky of SFS’s concert performances, juggles both roles in his repertory. Akimov sometimes also sings the Iurodivii (Holy Fool), an unforgettable cameo part of a prophetic beggar. Initially, the Holy Fool figured in 1869’s Saint Basil’s Cathedral scene, speaking truth to power as he confronts the Tsar; when Mussorgsky revised Boris, he transferred the Fool’s moonlit Lament for starving Russia to the final Kromy Forest scene, ending the entire work on a haunting, elegiac and pessimistic note.

From his almost Verdian entrance—a soulful, cello-laden orchestral Andante assai—and his combination of long, legato lines and thoughtful declamation beginning with the puissant yet inclusive word, addressing the crowd, “Pravoslavnye!” (“O Orthodox [believers]!) Shchelkalov—the Secretary of the Duma (the aristocratic advisory circle)—exudes musical gravitas. Indeed, he seems the opera’s one powerful person caring more about Russia than his own interests (so, nothing like history’s feared diplomat Andrei Shchelkalov, anyhow dead by 1597). His second entrance—at the beginning of the Kremlin scene that ultimately witnesses Boris’s death—finds Shchelkalov similarly evoked orchestrally entering to read the Tsar’s proclamation denouncing the Pretender. This small but pivotal role (like Wagner’s Herald in Lohengrin) gets awarded to baritones of whom great things are expected: Metropolitan Opera Schelkalovs over the decades have included Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, and Alexey Markov.

In 1872 Mussorgsky added the Polish Act (not played at these concerts), answering demands for a “love story” and a prima donna. It adds two characters to the mix—Pushkin’s vain Princess Marina Mnishek and (from Karamzin) her sinister confessor Rangoni—and the music is lavishly “Western”—from Mussorgsky’s point of view, both artificial and  “foreign.” The Duet between the conniving False Dmitri and Marina—ambitious to rule in Moscow—sounds thrilling but conventional; the words reveal that it’s a duet of ambition, not of love. The act’s orchestral local color includes a grand, pompous Polonaise, requiring dancers. The Polish act adds contrast, and served as both an imagistic and musical model for Sergei Eisenstein and  Prokofiev in their wonderfully stilted Polish court scenes in Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1946). But without it—as Mussorgsky originally intended, and as we’ll hear today—the opera conveys a musical treatment of history far more evocative of the ideals Russian Nationalist composers espoused.

Without Marina, this opera dominated by male solo voices finds contrast and respite in more domestic spheres: the spirited Innkeeper on the Lithuanian border, and Boris’s children plus their Nurse. Xenia unforgettably begins the Palace scene (the edition’s fifth) in the touching, “Russian minor” (a.k.a. Dorian mode) with a lament (Plach’), a genre associated with brides and potential brides throughout the Russian nationalist operatic canon. Her brother Fyodor was written for a mezzo. “Trouser roles” deploying female singers as young male characters reflects not only Western models (Cherubino, Meyerbeer’s Urbain) but yet another Russian tradition stemming from Glinka’s two founding operatic works. Trebles and countertenors can also sing Fyodor.

Given the vastly disparate scenes making up Boris’s fragmentary world, it’s become a widely repeated cliché that the opera’s chorus (“the Russian people” in various configurations) is the piece’s true protagonist. Whether the opening scene’s coerced supplicants, the Duma scene’s windy Boyars (illustrating as definitively as Aeschylus’ chorus after Agamemnon’s death how unfit a body they are to make any decision) or the final scene’s rioting peasants, the main shared characteristic is confusion. But they do sing varied (often thrilling) music.

Though you might not hear this from Russian commentators, Mussorgsky’s use of the orchestra owes something to the examples of Verdi (in terms of dark color) and the convention-flouting Berlioz, who guested in mid-nineteenth century Saint Petersburg. His orchestra rewards attentive listening. Consider the opera’s prelude, a rare moment in which the score evokes nature or innocence dances around in the woodwinds until overwhelmed by Mussorgsky’s massive Fate theme—the driving, inexorable nature of history; we’ll hear that throughout. Through repetitious or neo-ostinato figures, the music notes time passing at many junctures. Variants include the Coronation Scene’s resplendent Kremlin bells (a passage in which Rimsky particularly went to town) and the offstage bell-tolling alongside chanting monks punctuating Boris’s death scene. Francis Poulenc—citing Mussorgsky among his greatest influences—used a similar history/fate motif in Dialogues des Carmélites, set in a different country’s Time of Troubles.

Listeners can also follow the “Dmitri theme”—at first just glimmers in the ears of Grigory when told by Pimen that he’s the murdered heir’s same age, but then taken up with increasing weight on each mention of Dmitri. The Pretender’s entrance into the Inn scene witnesses this theme taken up with utmost seriousness in the low strings. Re-entering Russia in the final scene acclaimed as the true Tsar, the Pretender actually sings the theme. The full orchestra and chorus take it up as they plunge onward to Moscow—and violent chaos. With Cossacks wielding whips outside last month’s Muscovite “coronation,” it’s hard not to experience Mussorgsky’s extraordinary Boris Godunov as an endlessly contemporary operatic masterpiece.

David Shengold

Critic/lecturer David Shengold writes regularly for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, and Opernwelt. He has contributed program essays for the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals.


Recordings: Leopold Stokowski conducting selections from the opera with the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera Chorus (originally released on RCA Victor, now available on a Cala Records re-issue)  |  Valery Gergiev conducting the Kirov Theater Orchestra and Chorus (Decca)  |  Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Sony)  |  For the Rimsky-Korsakov version, Alexander Melik-Pachev conducting the Orchestra and Chorus of Bolshoi Theatre featuring Ivan Petrov as Boris Godunov and Irina Arkhipova as Marina (Melodiya)

On DVD: Valery Gergiev leading the Kirov Opera at the Mariinsky Theatre, with Robert Lloyd as Boris, Vladimir Ognovenko as Varlaam, Olga Borodina as Marina, and Sergei Leiferkus as Rangoni, in an edition combining Mussorgsky's two versions (Philips)

Reading:  Musorgsky: Eight Essays and an Epilogue, by Richard Taruskin (Princeton)  |  Musorgsky Remembered, compiled and edited by Alexandra Orlova (Indiana)  |  Mussorgsky, by M.D. Colvocoressi, completed and revised by Gerald Abraham (Master Musicians series, Dent)  |  The New Kobbé’s Opera Book, edited by The Earl of Harewood and Antony Peattie (Ebury Press)  |  Musorgsky: His Life and Works, by David Brown (Oxford University Press, Master Musicians series)  |  The New Grove Russian Masters 1: Balakirev, Musorgsky, Tchaikovsky, by David Brown et al. (Norton)

(June 2018)

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