Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
The masters of Russian opera owed much to Italian models.Glinka, father of the genre, spent valuable time in Italy; Tchaikovsky loved toholiday there, soaking up the ambience; and even that rough diamond Mussorgskytook inspiration from an Italian - in his case, Verdi. In 1862 La forza deldestino was given its premi?â?¿re in St Petersburg: it was an episodic 'revenger'stragedy' in which the action was played out against a background of tavern,church and war, with the chorus usually representing the common people. It evenfeatured a comic monk. La forza del destino cast a long shadow on Mussorgsky'smasterpieces Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina - and in view of the reputation itgained for bringing bad luck, perhaps it put the evil eye on Boris. Certainly thismagnificent opera, which seems to enshrine the very essence of the Russiansoul, has had a tortuous route to establishing itself in the repertoire.
Mussorgsky wrote his first version of Boris Godunov in1868-69 at the prompting of the historian Vladimir Nikolsky, basing it on thedrama by Pushkin and the history of Russia by Karamzin - Nikolsky and VladimirStasov assisted with the libretto. This seven-scene version immediately raninto trouble, paralleling what would happen to Janacˇek a generation later.It had virtually no female interest and the music seemed barbaric to therefined tastes of the day. Mussorgsky's particular genius was akin to theaspect he presented in the famous portrait by Repin, rather rough and unkempt,but what he heard in his mind's ear was truer to nature and the spirit ofMother Russia than the music being produced by his friends among the 'MightyHandful' (Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui and Borodin). Rebuffed by thecommittee of the Imperial Theatres, he produced a second version, cutting thescene which took place outside St Basil's Cathedral, inserting a new act (someof which, already written, had been left out of his first version) andcomposing a new ending set in the Kromy Forest. Boris's monologue became morelike an aria and his Clock Scene made its appearance. That unforgettablecharacter of the Simpleton was transferred from the St Basil's scene to theKromy Forest and the opera now ended with his lament. Other changes increasedthe female involvement but the main gain on this front was the advent ofMarina. This second version of Boris was influenced not just by Dargomyzhskybut by Rimsky-Korsakov, with whom Mussorgsky stayed during its composition(Rimsky-Korsakov was working on The Maid of Pskov).
The Coronation Scene was performed in concert in 1872 andthe Polish Act and the Inn Scene were done at the Mariinsky in 1873; but theopera as a whole was not heard until 1874, and even then cuts were made by theconductor Napravnik. Yet the work had a considerable success. Boris wasconsidered interesting even by its detractors but by the time Mussorgsky died,aged just 42, in 1881 it had fallen into disuse. His friend Rimsky-Korsakovstarted tinkering with it in 1888 and by 1896 had produced a new version,rescored, changed in many details and with the order of the final two scenesreversed so that the opera ended with Boris's death. Two years later FyodorChaliapin took the title r?â??le for the first time and it was he who made thework famous. In the 1920s Mussorgsky's original score was published, but itmade little headway - more notice was taken of Ippolitov-Ivanov's rescoring ofthe St Basil's scene, which was sometimes added to the rest (with theduplicated section of the Simpleton's part excised). A 1928 Leningradproduction of the Mussorgsky version was badly presented and failed, despitehaving Mark Reizen as Boris.
The Rimsky-Korsakov's version revised in 1906-08, with cutsrestored, did better, conquering all the major operatic centres throughChaliapin (other noted exponents of Boris were Adam Didur, Robert Radford,Carlo Galeffi, Vanni-Marcoux, Andre Pernet, Alexander Kipnis and Ezio Pinza).In Russia the Rimsky version also ruled, although at the Bolshoy the St Basil'sscene was restored and the Kromy Forest scene was placed in its rightfulposition at the end. This version was recorded in the late 1940s - Russianrecord buyers could choose between Reizen and Alexander Pirogov as Boris.Meanwhile in 1940 Shostakovich made his own orchestration, which sought tomediate between the ideals of Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. To be fair toRimsky-Korsakov, he wrote of his effort: 'Mussorgsky's violent admirers frowneda bit, regretting something... But having arranged the new revision of BorisGodunov, I had not destroyed its original form, had not painted out the oldfrescoes for ever. If ever the conclusion is arrived at that the original isbetter, worthier than my revision, mine will be discarded, and Boris Godunovwill be performed according to the original score'. In the past few decadesthat point has been reached: Mussorgsky's original has taken over and now it isRimsky-Korsakov's score which is endangered.
Whichever version you espouse, Mussorgsky's opera is amasterwork full of magnificent music and pungent characterisation. Folk-songinspires many of its pages - a notable example is the great chorus in thePrologue, based on a tune Beethoven had already used on a smaller scale in hisSecond Razumovsky Quartet. Even more than most Russian music of the nineteenthcentury, Boris Godunov is also redolent of liturgical chant at almost everyturn. Larger-than-life characters such as Varlaam, Missail, the Hostess and theSimpleton provide diversions from the tortured character of Boris himself whois on stage for a relatively short time and always the chorus is there,representing the timeless stoicism of the Russian people.
Boris Christoff, Chaliapin's successor in the West, wassinging music from the opera in public as early as 1944 and soon beganprogramming Mussorgsky's songs, but he did not engage with the composer onstage until February 1947, when he sang Pimen in Rome to the Boris of TancrediPasero. That September they repeated their r?â??les at La Scala, with NicolaRossi-Lemeni as Varlaam; in February 1948 Christoff essayed the r?â??le of Dosifeiin Khovanshchina at Trieste, with Rossi-Lemeni as Khovansky, and the followingmonth Christoff replaced the scheduled Pasero as Boris at Cagliari, with TullioSerafin conducting. Christoff and Rossi-Lemeni became a double-act inKhovanshchina, finally in February 1949 reaching La Scala, where theirconductor was Issay Dobrowen. Meanwhile Christoff had sung in Mussorgsky'sSorochintsy Fair for Italian Radio (and he would soon do it on stage). InNovember 1949 he sang Boris in London (doing the Rimsky version in Russianwhile everyone else did the Mussorgsky version in English) and across New Year1950 he gave four performances at La Scala under Dobrowen. By the time thisrecording was made in 1952, he was steeped in Mussorgsky's music and, likeChaliapin before him, knew every note of the Rimsky-Korsakov Boris. It nowseems strange that he should have commandeered all three main bass r?â??les: aBoris with, say, Raphael Ari?â?½ as Pimen and Rossi-Lemeni as Varlaam would havebeen a great draw, but the new tape process made it possible - Christoff-Borisand Christoff-Pimen had to confront each other in Act IV - and Dobrowen and EMIwent along with the idea (which Christoff would repeat for stereo, thoughwithout Dobrowen). Whatever one thinks of the preponderance of Christoff'stones in the finished set, he sings well enough. To have the young Gedda as theFalse Dmitry, Eugenia Zareska as Marina and Kim Borg as the wily Jesuit Rangoniis also marvellous, but it is for Christoff and the conducting of Dobrowen thatthis set - the first to be available worldwide is treasured by opera buffs.