Mussorgsky was in many ways a proto-modern composer, badly misunderstood even by his friends and admirers as a wild talent in dire need of civilized tutoring. The force of his genius was appreciated, but not the aptness of its expression, until Shostakovich and others began removing the glossy late-Romantic veneer applied to Mussorgsky's works - finished and unfinished - by posthumous editors and orchestrators such as Rimsky-Korsakov.
Mussorgsky led a turbulent life - his musical training was haphazard, he moved around frequently, and he left some of his most important works unfinished when he died from an infection brought on by alcoholism at the age of 42. As a member of the Mighty Five, a group of composers devoted to pioneering a Russian musical voice, Mussorgsky belongs among the musical nationalists of the late 19th century. He especially excelled as a composer of dramatic music for the voice, as his operas and songs confirm.
Indeed, the body of Mussorgsky's songs and his opera Boris Godunov represent the composer's two undisputed masterpieces. The subject for Boris, Russia's greatest opera, was suggested to Mussorgsky by Nikolsky, who was a specialist on Aleksandr Pushkin, Russia's greatest poet. It was Pushkin's deliberately Shakespearean tragedy Boris Godunov (1824-25) that Mussorgsky adapted into his own libretto.
In Modest Mussorgsky and Boris Godunov, an excellent recent book by Caryl Emerson and Robert Oldani, we read that "the opera-goer approaching Boris Godunov for the first time confronts a textual problem almost without equal in the standard repertory." Mussorgsky completed his first version of Boris in 1869, but this was rejected by the Imperial Theaters Directorate in 1871 (largely because it lacked any major female role), so the composer set about making revisions. The new version of Boris (with the addition of a love interest for the Pretender) was finished in 1872 and accepted for performance at the Mariinsky Theater in 1874, where it was performed a mere 26 times between 1874 and 1882.
Mussorgsky had died in 1881. Having judged the work to be technically flawed, Rimsky-Korsakov worked from 1888 to 1906 on revising and re-orchestrating his old friend's opera. It was in Rimsky's version, with Feodor Chaliapin singing the title role, that Boris Godunov became an international hit. This evening's performance is of the original 1869 version.
Like Pushkin, Mussorgsky assumed Boris was guilty of ordering the 1591 assassination of the nine-year-old Tsarevich Dimitry, one of Ivan the Terrible's sons, in order to clear the way for his own accession in 1598. (Modern historians doubt Boris' guilt.) An enlightened, intelligent, and well-meaning tsar, Boris nonetheless met with disaster during his reign, which was plagued by famine and political strife. He died suddenly in 1605, having plunged his country into the infamous "Time of Troubles," from which it would not emerge until 1613, with the election of the first Romanov tsar. Popular legend held that Godunov - Russia's Macbeth - had died of bitter remorse for killing Dimitry, and God made all Russia suffer for it.
The original version of the opera was cast in four parts (the revision was restructured into a prologue and four acts, the third entirely new). Part I begins with a crowd scene in the courtyard of a Moscow monastery. A policeman and others threaten and cajole the uncomprehending crowd to beg Boris to accept the throne, which they ultimately do. The famous "Coronation Scene" (Scene Two) presents a triumphant Boris emerging into the magnificent Cathedral Square, inside the Kremlin walls. The cathedral bells peal raucously, and the people glorify their new tsar by comparing him to the radiant sun. This chorus of glory ("Slava!") is set to one of the few folk melodies to appear in the opera; it was first published in 1790, and later used by Beethoven in his second "Razumovsky" Quartet (Op. 59, No. 2). In spite of the festivities, Boris himself is filled with foreboding. His piety and generosity cannot assuage his conscience, and the carillons serve only to hammer home Godunov's awful guilt.
Part II covers the rise of the opposition to Boris. The first scene takes place in a cell in the Chudov Monastery. An old soldier who witnessed the assassination of the tsarevich has become a monk (Pimen) and is compiling a chronicle of the crime, which he relates to Grigory, his novice. When Grigory discovers that he is the same age as the murdered tsarevich, he vows to pretend to be the tsarevich risen from the dead and claim the throne. In the second scene, Grigory has arrived at an inn near the border with Lithuania, where he hopes to raise support for his cause. With him are two monks, Varlaam and Misail, who are ignorant of his plot. Varlaam sings several songs, including one on a tune that Mussorgsky had learned from Rimsky-Korsakov. A police patrol arrives. Grigory first tries to persuade them that it is Varlaam who is the Pretender to the throne, and when Varlaam exposes that ruse, Grigory manages to escape out a window.
In Part III, set six years after the coronation, we see Boris in the Tsar's chambers in the Kremlin, in the bosom of his family, an affectionate father worrying over his daughter and son. Alone, however, Boris is still plagued with remorse and, in a famous soliloquy, reviews the disasters of family and state that have beset him during his reign. Toward the end of the monologue, the motive associated with Boris' guilt is introduced. Prince Shuisky arrives with news of the Pretender, and a warning that the superstitious populace might support the Pretender. He also assures Boris that he saw the corpse of the murdered tsarevich, at which point Boris sends him away. Now despairing in his guilt, Boris hallucinates that the ghost of the murdered Dimitry has appeared. The guilt theme achieves terrible prominence, and Boris, though repentant, begins to go mad.
The first scene of Part IV parallels the opening scene, with an uncomprehending crowd, this time in the square before St. Basil's Cathedral, where Boris has ordered an anathema to be pronounced upon the Pretender. On his way out of the service, Boris is met by a Holy Fool, who confronts him with the murder of the tsarevich. When Boris asks the Holy Fool to pray for him, the Fool refuses.
"The Death of Boris" (Scene II) is the opera's emotional climax. Accompanied by a series of now-familiar themes, Boris, further frightened by Pimen's false tale of the Pretender's miracle-working and his health now destroyed by his conscience, attempts to pass the tsardom on to his son, but his strength fails. A chorus of monks enters to administer the ritual induction into monastic orders offered to all tsars just before death. Against the backdrop of their singing, Boris' condition worsens. After one last spasm of fierce dynastic will ("I am still Tsar!"), Boris falls to the floor, begging God's forgiveness as his life finally ebbs away.
- Thomas Hodge and John Henken