A Matter of Authenticity
Watching the online streaming of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov (given at the Metropolitan Opera on October 23, 2010), I was bombarded with thoughts of this country’s current struggles: an out-of-control pandemic, political conflict and upheaval, governance at a standstill, a suffering populace, and a divided nation facing mounting pressures from within and without. How much of a comparison, really, can one draw from a mid-19th century operatic work written by a minor government functionary and confirmed alcoholic? To be honest, quite a few.
Mussorgsky, the “minor functionary” and alcoholic in question, took as his source a play by famed poet Alexander Pushkin. Setting his opera to the unwieldy spoken drama of Pushkin’s text, Mussorgsky revolutionized Russian opera by implementing his own ideas about how to replicate natural speech in song. While there’s a kernel of truth to the notion that he adapted existing folk material for some of the numbers (the most obvious being the Prelude and the Innkeeper’s little ditty in Act II), Mussorgsky went on to employ a technique whereby he was able to convey his characters’ thoughts and moods through shifting rhythms and bold harmonics.
If, in 1870, the Mariinsky Theater of St. Petersburg had rejected Boris Godunov for its lack of a female lead and, to put it bluntly, its bold unconventionality, the composer’s 1872 revision (which the Met brought to the fore back in 1974) settled the matter once and for all where the original was concerned.
Most people (yours truly included) have been seduced by the luxuriousness of the version set by Mussorgsky’s younger colleague, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who completely recomposed and re-orchestrated the work. Granted, the result was exotic, lush and pleasing to the ear, brilliantly sonorous, and regrettably termed “correct.” A teacher of composition and a strict academician down to his toes, Rimsky lamented his friend’s “obstinate, bumptious amateurishness.”
Years after Mussorgsky’s 1881 passing, Rimsky the perfectionist went about readjusting the score to his particular musical style, basically eliminating what he deemed were “impractical difficulties, fragmentary musical phrases, clumsy vocal writing, harsh harmonies and modulations, faulty counterpoint, poverty of instrumentation, and general weakness from a technical point of view.”
For years, this drastically altered edition toured the world’s theaters, which, if truth be told, certainly contributed to its acceptance as a major addition to the standard repertoire. Such artists as the great Fyodor Chaliapin, Adamo Didur, Ezio Pinza, Boris Christoff, George London, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Martti Talvela made a specialty out of the title role. After the rediscovery of Mussorgsky’s original manuscript (occurring sometime in the mid-1960s), a slow and steady encroachment took hold in that what had been deemed as amateurish and unperformable was now looked upon as worthwhile.
In our opinion, the only authentic version, then, is that of Mussorgsky, sans the optional Polish scenes. Its stark, angular, primal, and primarily string- and woodwind-based instrumentation, with lower vocal lines for Boris and a spare orchestral palette overall are emblematic both of Russian nationalism intermingled with emerging modernist tendencies.
In contrast, Rimsky’s romanticized rewriting was the result of a conventionally-minded pedant obsessed with rectifying (or “improving,” if you will) his contemporary’s vision, as sincere and ultimately wrongheaded as his motives may have been. History, as relentless a force as this opera has shown it to be, has vindicated the original’s standing as a unique and ultimately revolutionary masterwork.
The ‘Time of Troubles’
The Metropolitan’s 2010 production had been plagued with its own troubles from the start. The original director, the feisty 72-year-old German theater titan Peter Stein, came up with a viable adaptation that incorporated Mussorgsky’s 1872 revision, along with the St. Basil scene from the 1869 original. Contributing to his vision were set designer Ferdinand Wögerbauer and costume designer Moidele Bickel.
About mid-July of that year, Stein groused to Met Opera officials about the stodginess of the proceedings, how he regarded the company as a “factory,” amid myriad problems with the U.S. Sate Department in obtaining a proper work visa. One thing led to another, until Stein abruptly quit the production. In response, the Met’s management summoned director Stephen Wadsworth, whose previous efforts at the company included Handel’s Rodelinda and Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, to pick up where Stein had left off.
This resulted in a hodgepodge of stylistic components, some of which melded seamlessly into the framework, while others stuck out or stretched authenticity to a noticeable degree. In sum, though, this newest Boris can be considered a triumph, due principally to several factors: one, to the magnificence of the Met Opera’s Chorus (kudos, as always, to chorus master Donald Palumbo); two, to Wadsworth’s last-minute salvage job; three, to the suppleness of the Met Opera Orchestra, under Russian maestro Valery Gergiev’s leadership; and last, but not least, to the magnificence of German basso René Pape as Boris.
Lasting nearly five hours in performance (with two intermissions), this latest excursion down the treacherous path of Russian history (Mussorgsky’s other historical epic, the never-completed Khovanshchina, was last given at the Met in 2012 in the Shostakovich edition, with the final scene orchestrated by Stravinsky) featured a large and varied cast of singing actors.
The time is the mid-17th century. The oppressive police state, manned by soldiers, boyars (rich landowners), guards and other malcontents, is omnipresent. The system of serfdom had also recently been implemented. Repression and beatings were commonplace. The Holy Fool (tenor Andrey Popov), sometimes called the Idiot or the Simpleton, is the first character we see. He is an outcast, a constant symbol albeit of a lowly person of little distinction, yet filled with a higher wisdom and insight into Mother Russia’s fate. He’s a prophet in disguise, and, much like John the Baptist, unheralded in his own land.
The opera begins and ends with the Holy Fool. The uncrowned Boris (the aforementioned Pape) rushes forth from his palace to confront this disheveled soul. The Fool presents him with a stone. Boris looks at the object, a token of the simple life, of home and hearth, and of a country in peril. The mood changes with the entrance of the populace. Whips are cracked (as well as heads). Violence, as stated, is the predominant way of life. The people cross themselves repeatedly (in the Eastern Orthodox manner from right to left), praying for deliverance from evil, from pain and suffering, and from the guards’ brutality.
Responding to the crowd’s pleas for aid, the Secretary of the Duma (the Russian ruling body), the noble Shchelkalov (baritone Alexey Markov), informs the peasants that the regent Boris Godunov has again refused take up the title of Tsar. (Note: See Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where the titular “noblest Roman of them all” thrice refused the laurels). He asks for prayers to the Almighty so that Boris will relent.
The scene changes to Boris’ coronation before the Kremlin in Moscow. In the original Mussorgsky arrangement, the orchestral sound is thinner and leaner, the harmony skewed, rising and falling steeply, while searching for tonal consistency. A factor of Russian music is the repeated ostinato marking, a stubbornly insistent phrase so characteristic of this work in general and Mussorgsky specifically. Bells and trumpets herald the pronouncement by the duplicitous Prince Shuisky (tenor Oleg Balashov) that “Boris Feodorovich is to be hailed as Tsar” of all the Russias.
Concentrating the drama on characterizations (as the composer preferred), René Pape’s towering portrayal of Boris, a flawed leader brought low by past atrocities, dominates his various scenes. Already, we sense his unwillingness to rule. He’s accompanied by his daughter Xenia and his young son Fyodor. Boris’ soul is grieving, his heart heavy with remorse and responsibility. Still, onward he trudges. The crowd hails his decision to accept the crown: “Slava! Slava!” they shout in glee. “Glory! Glory!”
The Russian people maintain their presence throughout, either out front or in the background; on the sidelines of history or as vital participants. They are the true protagonists of the drama. The Pretender Dimitri (the novice monk Grigory in disguise) is the second most prominent character, with Boris, the newly crowned Tsar, the third in line. And why is that? In Mussorgsky’s vision, Boris is the symbol of flawed authority, a reluctant ruler burdened by the duties of his office (Tsar Nicholas II would be his closest historical counterpart, although Nicholas was but six years old at the time the opera premiered in 1874).
The tremendous guilt that Boris feels involved the crime of butchering the young heir Dimitri, son of his father-in-law, the late Tsar Ivan IV, dubbed “the Terrible” (in Russian, Ivan Grozny) — often mentioned but never seen. Historians and revisionist scholars have absolved the real Boris of his crimes. Nevertheless, Mussorgsky preserved the play’s conclusion that Boris was indeed to blame for the heir’s death.
The scene shifts to the Chudov Monastery in Moscow, where the aged monk Pimen (bass Mikhail Petrenko) serves as the chronicler of Russia’s turbulent past. Tellingly, Boris looms in the background, sitting on his throne and lifting his scepter in the air. Pimen is also filled with sorrow, his eyes show dark lines beneath them. Yet, he is sleepless and ever-mindful of the heavy task before him. “Still one more story to tell,” the monk muses. His languorous theme underscores the endless notations. Pimen sits atop an enormous volume of Russia’s history, the “great book,” as we like to call it. He labors over this ever-present image that occupies practically every scene — a reminder of past misdeeds and the as-yet-to-be-written tale.
There are many individual vignettes throughout this work. Mussorgsky was astute enough to capture this and other moments in short, descriptive passages: the greediness of the Innkeeper, the raunchiness of the rogue friars Varlaam and Missail, the traitorous aspects of Prince Shuisky, the idealism of the politician Shchelkalov. They push the dramatic arc along its solemn course: from top to bottom, a parable of political and moral failings.
Tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as Grigory/Dimitri is a revelation, an authentic Slavic voice in the grand Russian manner. Although he’s a native of Latvia, “Sasha” Antonenko made his mark at the Met as the Prince in the 2009 production of Dvořák’s Rusalka. Sturdy of tone and of timbre, the novice Grigory fantasizes about a life outside the monastery. Pimen instructs him on the brutal record of Ivan the Terrible’s reign (whom he praises to the rafters), contrasted with that of Boris’ murderous rise.
When he learns from Pimen that the murdered heir to the throne, the infant Prince Dimitri, would be about the same age as himself (had he lived, of course), Grigory hits upon a scheme of impersonating the deceased heir as the Pretender. Inspired by his dream, Grigory leaves the monastery in disguise.
Immediately, we are taken to the frontier border between Russia and Lithuania. The lusty Innkeeper (mezzo Olga Savova) warbles a sprightly theme to herself. She is interrupted by the arrival of two boisterous friars, Varlaam (bass Vladimir Ognovenko) and Missail (tenor Nikolai Gassiev), who force themselves on their hostess. All they ask is for good wine and a good night’s rest. The friars spot the fugitive Grigory in disguise. They ponder his moody aspect and the fact that he’s sullen and withdrawn. Varlaam goes into a rowdy screed about Ivan the Terrible’s bloody siege of Kazan. After a few more cups of wine, the friar is sufficiently calmed. He places his head on the Innkeeper’s lap while singing himself to sleep.
Taking advantage of the lull, Grigory inquires about the safest route out of Russia, but the Innkeeper warns him of guards at every check point. Paying for her advice, Grigory learns of an alternate route, which interests him. Everyone is awakened by soldiers hot on the trail of an escaped fugitive named Grishka (a nickname for Grigory). But the Police Officer (Gennady Bezzubenkov) is illiterate and cannot read the warrant for Grishka’s arrest. In fact, he suspects that Varlaam is the man he seeks — especially after Grigory changes the fugitive’s description to match that of the drunken friar. Incensed, Varlaam barely manages to make out the correct description: It’s Grigory, the very person he is staring at! The novice then makes a run for it, with the soldiers and Police Officer in pursuit.
The next scene takes place in the throne room. We are in the presence of Boris’ family members: his son Fyodor (Jonathan A. Makepeace) and daughter Xenia (Jennifer Zeltan) whose betrothed has recently died. The Nurse (Larissa Shevchenko) entertains the youths with a literal song and dance. These poignant sideshows are designed to temporarily distract (and provide relief) from the larger context of the country’s unresolved ills, which lead to a scene in the Duma. The Tsar’s own love for his children and his tenderness towards them betrays his inner torment where worldly affairs invade his private thoughts (surely inspired, one would think, by Verdi’s Philip II in Don Carlos — had Mussorgsky been aware of it).
Wracked with remorse and overwhelmed by his duties, Boris is faced with confronting Russia’s dark past, a constant reminder of which is embodied in the immense history volume that dominates this scene. In the monologue, “I have attained the highest power,” Boris bemoans the fact that he is blamed for every conceivable ill, no matter what good he has attempted to bring. Plots are everywhere, and Shuisky’s sly machinations are always afoot. The boyars, who control the workings of the state, lament Shuisky’s absence from their meetings. “He’s a schemer and not to be trusted,” they complain, “but we need his advice.” Small comfort, indeed! He’s not the only one: the populace itself is wary and fickle, and easily swayed by rumors of a Pretender, the allegedly resurrected Dimitri, in league with the Poles and ruled by the ambitious Princess Marina Mnishek (mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk).
Both Shuisky and Boris stand, at one point, on opposite ends of the great book. Who will write the next horrific chapter, as Pimen had earlier prophesied? Tormented by a conscience that won’t quit, Boris begins to experience hallucinations of the dead and bloodied Dimitri, rising up ominously to confront him. Boris breaks down under constant psychological torment (the male version of a “Mad Scene”), falling to the ground in a delirium in the famous “Clock Scene,” the music of which depicts the monotonous ticking of a clock. “Get away! Get away from me!” Boris shouts to the monstrous vision. The act ends with his begging for God’s forgiveness.
The Fate of Mother Russia
Through-composed sequences and so-called “set pieces” have been integrated into the whole. Still, the added Polish scenes are the opera’s weakest section. After the original 1868 opus was turned down for performance in 1869, Mussorgsky crafted these additions to placate the “professors,” as well as provide audiences with a “love interest.” Critics at the time felt the opera needed a feminine presence, a sort of comfort filler to suit contemporary tastes. It was felt, too, that the opera concentrated too much attention on the Tsar’s foibles at court. Nothing is lost by the Polish scenes’ elimination, which can seem superfluous to the main plot. In compensation, there is much lovely music (the sprightly polonaise for one, reminiscent of Chopin’s A major Military Polonaise). Some marvelous tableaux are also present, as is a carpet version of the great book.
Speaking of the Polish scenes, a different type of politics emerges, centering on the radical Jesuit priest Rangoni, as unctuous and loathsome an individual as the two drunken friars. Impersonated by bass-baritone Evgeni Nikitin, the scheming Rangoni entices Marina to seduce the willing Pretender and, most ingeniously, to align himself with their cause and that of their people. “Surrender to the Church, surrender to me,” he charges her, a warning with more than a hint of personal gratification. This would fulfill their mission of delivering Russian Orthodoxy into the lap of the Holy See in Rome — i.e., the unification of the Eastern and Western Church, which has been an unfulfilled goal for a millennium.
For his part, Dimitri is only too eager to be part of their campaign. He falls easily in “love” with the Princess, but make no mistake: They are using each other to further their individual gains, each with his or her own agenda. Ambition rules both Marina and Dimitri’s motives, but “power,” as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once observed, “is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” And so it is with these supposed lovebirds, each one testing the other with feigned expressions of ardor, their true intentions coded yet made overt. We can be secure in the knowledge they are both on the same wavelength; their goals are one and the same, despite the play on words. Equally matched and desirous of the other’s charms, they give in to their passion.
Dimitri now stands on the great book of history. He will write his own story, knowing full well what lies ahead. In turn, Marina takes up her position on the great book, indicating that regardless of their union, she has every intention of following her own path. (We make note that Boris and Dimitri never meet; Mussorgsky wisely kept them physically apart, but individually they cannot help to be mindful of one another.)
The Holy Fool reappears before the Church of St. Basil, along with the starving crowd. He wears a tin pot on his head, pleading for the people to pray to God for deliverance. Suddenly, a kopeck he has found gets snatched from his hand by one of the street urchins. Boris strolls past with his family and retinue. He is drawn and muted, his hair a premature gray. He distributes bread to the famished bystanders, while the masses beg for mercy. “We are hungry. Give us bread, for God’s sake,” they plead. Famine has ravaged the once fertile land.
At that moment, the Tsar is attracted by the Holy Fool’s pitiless wails. “They have robbed me!” he cries. Both Boris and the Holy Fool find themselves on opposite ends of the great book. But the Holy Fool refuses to pray for Boris. “One can’t pray for a Tsar Herod,” he discloses, a reference to the biblical king who murdered the firstborn of Israel to prevent the Messiah from reaching manhood, as well as a direct indictment of Boris’ own crimes.
“Weep, weep, oh faithful soul. Sorrow, weep, oh starving people.” The Holy Fool finds rest atop the great book, using its mammoth pages as a makeshift bedcover. He seeks protection from the elements — and from the inevitable march of history.
Back at the throne room, the boyar Shchelkalov reads Boris’ proclamation, urging any and all Russians to crush the Pretender Dimitri. The ruling court passes a stern judgment on Dimitri and his followers, one they will come to regret. Prince Shuisky enters. Shrewd and manipulative, he plays both sides of the political aisle. Boris is in a pitiful state, he relates, and incapable of governing. At that, the Tsar enters, crying out for the “dead” Dimitri to leave his sight. Continuously wracked by guilt, Boris sits on his throne (which is turned round to face the audience). The presence of the old monk Pimen is announced, and he is ushered in. He has a story to tell about a vision of the coming Pretender, but Boris can hear no more. He goes into a death spiral, dismissing the boyars and summoning his remaining family members.
Left alone, Boris bids farewell to his son and daughter. In a final gesture, he appoints Fyodor as his successor. Near death, Boris pleads for God’s mercy. “Prostii menya, prostii. Bozhe, smert! Prostii…” His few, fleeting words reveal his humbled state of mind: “Forgive me, forgive. Lord, death! Forgive…” The stricken Tsar collapses to the ground, his two children left weeping at his side.
The scene changes swiftly to the Kromy Forest on the outskirts of Moscow. Peasants enter. Symbolically, they tear the great book apart. What will become of Mother Russia, now that the history of the realm is in tatters? The boyars are taken captive. Taunted and tortured by the crowd, one of them is executed outright, the populace taking out their mounting anger on their former oppressors; it’s clearly mob rule. The two drunken friars reemerge, as does the Holy Fool. The friars drag one of the guards with them, bloodied and bound. They squabble atop of what’s left of the great book. A near riot breaks out, but the bloodlust grinds to a halt when Dimitri leads Marina into view, riding a magnificent steed. The Polish banner precedes their triumphant entrance.
The rejoicing is interrupted by Jesuit priests, several of whom are hung on the spot. Dimitri spares the lives of two of the Jesuits. With that, the treacherous Shuisky comes forward, accompanied by Rangoni. The two conspirators are obviously pleased with the results, but they eye each other suspiciously. The crowd praises the new young Tsar as their deliverer. On the sidelines, the two friars marvel at Dimitri in recognition of this Pretender as the fugitive novice Grishka. Dimitri begs his followers to walk with him to glory. The two remaining Jesuits kneel in prayer for the dead.
But the Holy Fool — the Idiot, the “guileless” Simpleton — repeats his poignant plea for Russia to weep for her soul. With arms raised upward, he looks to heaven, the unmistakable image of Our Lord in supplication.
And where is our “happy ending”? Nowhere in sight, I’m afraid. History tells us that once he was established in Moscow, the newly crowned Tsar Dimitri put Boris’ son Fyodor to death. Within a year of the Pretender’s triumphant entry, he too was murdered shortly after his marriage to Marina Mnishek. Upon Dimitri’s death, Prince Shuisky assumed the title of Tsar. And within a few years after that, Tsar Shuisky himself was captured by the Poles and later died in one of their prison camps. Turnabout is fair play!
Amazingly enough, two more false Dimitris emerged, each coming to an ignominious end. To borrow a phrase from Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part One, “It’s ‘tough’ to be the king.”
It sure is! And it can even get you killed.
Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes