After four centuries, uncertainty still clings to the life of Boris Fyodorovich Godunov (1551-1605), the Russian Macbeth. Appropriately, perhaps, confusion also surrounds the great opera by Modeste Mussorgsky that has Boris as its subject.
Was Boris one of history's darkest villains or an essentially good man, unlucky and sadly misunderstood? Can Mussorgsky's original opera stand on its own, or does it need the reworking and polishing provided, after Mussorgsky's death, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov? Both questions were considered settled a generation ago; Boris was a villain and Rimsky-Korsakov rescued an opera almost unperformable in its original form.
Now, revisionist views are widely accepted. Even from Russia, one of the last strongholds of the Rimsky-Korsakov version, a performance of the original Mussorgsky score is available on compact discs from Philips (412-281-2, three CDs with libretto). Curiously, although the solo singers are generally identified with the Bolshoi, the orchestra and chorus are not. Perhaps the Bolshoi as a company has not yet come to terms with Mussorgsky's undiluted Boris? Also new on the market is a Bolshoi performance of the Rimsky-Korsakov text in a 1954 movie, now available on videotape from Corinth Films (Beta or VHS, $69.95).
Traditionally, Boris has been considered a monster who murdered an innocent child to win his throne, held it through terror and was struck down by God in the prime of life. More recently, he has been viewed as a relatively enlightened monarch who happened to reach the throne at the wrong time: that dark period of insurrection, famine and other disasters before the arrival of the Romanov dynasty; a period known to Russians as the "Time of Troubles."
Some points are well established: Boris became the de facto ruler of Russia after the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1584, ruling in the name of Fyodor, Ivan's feeble-minded elder son. He was czar from 1598 to his sudden death (at age 53) in 1605, and his reign was one of the most turbulent in the Russian Empire's long, troubled history.
Boris' death was mysterious but timely; he simply collapsed and died shortly before the arrival of an insurgent army that certainly would have toppled him from the throne and that did murder his wife and son.
The army was headed by a figure known to history as "The False Dmitri," actually a defrocked monk named Grigory (or Yuri) Otrepyev, who claimed to be the younger son of Ivan the Terrible. Dmitri had actually died in 1591 -- at the order of Boris, according to his enemies. The false Dmitri reigned briefly, died mysteriously and was succeeded by Prince Vladimir Shuisky, a chief character and subtle villain in the opera. Shuisky's reign was also brief, and he was succeeded by the Romanovs who held the throne for three centuries until the Russian Revolution.
The view of Boris as a villain, dating back to his lifetime and promoted mostly by his political enemies, was adopted by the 19th-century historian N.M. Karamzin in his massive history of Russia. It has been echoed by most historians since then with only a few dissenting voices that went almost unheard.
But a new Boris has emerged recently in the work of Soviet historian Ruslan Grigorevich Skrynnikov. On the key point -- whether Boris ordered the murder of Ivan's younger son Dmitri -- Skrynnikov reexamines the evidence (which is quite abundant; there was a board of inquiry at the time) and concludes that Dmitri's death was accidental. Otherwise, he insists, Boris was a victim of circumstances. Ahead of his time in some respects (including his interest in western science, culture and education), he was caught and crushed in a struggle between peasants and nobility. His position was undermined by poor health, crop failures and mass starvation -- not to mention threats from Poland (which supported a pretender to the throne) and unrest among the Cossacks.
In any case, the operatic view remains the impression of Boris Godunov held by most people who recognize his name. Karamzin's literary style was more powerful than his ability as a researcher -- powerful enough to convince Alexander Pushkin, whose play "Boris Godunov" is based on the theory of the czar's guilt. Pushkin's play acquires even more power in Mussorgsky's operatic adaptation, and that is the Boris that has captured the world's imagination. The result is a portrait of a tyrant who might serve as a model for Joseph Stalin, except that Boris felt remorse for his crimes.
Whether his portrait of Boris is accurate or not, Mussorgsky caught the atmosphere of the tragic czar's brief, troubled reign. In a sense, the real hero of the opera is the Russian people -- embodied above all in the chorus, but also in the figure of the Simpleton seen being tormented and robbed by a gang of boys, confronting Boris outside the Cathedral of St. Basil and calling him "King Herod," and in the opera's final measures eloquently lamenting in the middle of a smoking battlefield: "Weep, weep Russian folk, poor starving folk."
At least, he can be seen doing some of these things in each of the three major versions prepared by Mussorgsky. The St. Basil scene is in his first draft, and it is one of the most powerful episodes in the opera. It symbolizes effectively the social tensions between the peasants (the Simpleton) and the nobility (the tormenting, thieving urchins). It also presents simply and dramatically the people's view of Boris as a blood-tainted tyrant. But it was omitted in Mussorgsky's later versions, with some of the material but not the "Herod" confrontation recycled into the "Revolution" scene in the Kromy Forest, composed as a replacement. In recent years, major opera companies (including both the Metropolitan and the San Francisco Opera) have adopted Mussorgsky's final version rather than Rimsky-Korsakov's for performance, also sneaking in the St. Basil scene from his first draft, which is simply too good to be omitted. This scene was also left out by Rimsky-Korsakov, but is often included by opera companies using his version, usually in an orchestration by Ippolitov-Ivanov.
Mussorgsky's other major revision was the addition of Act 3 (the "Polish" act), composed primarily because without it the opera has no leading role for a woman. This act differs significantly from the rest of "Boris" -- it is much closer to traditional western opera -- but performances without it would be almost unthinkable today. There has also been a question whether the opera should end with Boris' death or the Simpleton's lament -- both effective final scenes. Mussorgsky wavered, chose the evocative Simpleton music, but dropped the whole "Revolution" scene in some performances during his lifetime, possibly for political rather than artistic reasons. Rimsky-Korsakov restored the "Revolution" scene (though it was sometimes omitted under pressure from censors), but placed it before the death of Boris.
In modern performances, including both of the recordings under discussion, the Simpleton's scene ends the opera and its tragic resonance strikes exactly the right final note. Otherwise, the two recordings differ considerably. The videotape edition presents a heavily cut Rimsky-Korsakov version, lasting only an hour and 45 minutes but managing to include the confrontation at St. Basil's. The Philips compact disc edition, lasting three hours and 18 minutes, was recorded in sessions spread out over five years, 1978-83. It is a historic landmark, featuring the first major Russian recording in digital sound and the only available recording of the original Mussorgsky score -- the 1872 version, his final view of the work, as far as it can be determined. It is considerably more satisfactory than the first recording of the original score (Angel SDLX-3844), which is now out of circulation. Ironically, this Russian production uses the definitive score prepared by British musicologist David Lloyd-Jones and published by the Oxford University Press.
The fidelity to Mussorgsky is almost total. Occasionally a singer forgets and slips into a cadence from the Rimsky-Korsakov version in which all Russian singers are presumably trained. But the primitive power of Mussorgsky's orchestration is well represented, and this recording confirms an impression that has been growing among lovers of this opera in recent years: that Mussorgsky's orchestration is at least as valid as Rimsky-Korsakov's more polished effort.
A choice between these versions is essentially a choice between apples and oranges. The Corinth edition is well-sung throughout, notably in the title role by Alexander Pirogov, who never performed in the West. The sound track is acceptable when played through a high-fidelity system, though in no way comparable to Philips' digital stereo. This production's chief attraction is its enormous visual impact; it was shot on location, and such locales as the Kremlin and St. Basil's Cathedral take on a presence almost as powerful as the cast and chorus. Even with substantial cuts and the Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration, it has a powerful appeal. In the fall, we may expect a competing videotape version from Video Arts International -- the same lavish Bolshoi production that was brought to the Kennedy Center a few years ago. Meanwhile, this production has a video monopoly. It can be ordered from Corinth Films, 410 E. 62nd St., New York, N.Y. 10021.
The Philips recording features two veteran singers fairly well-known in the West, Irina Arkhipova as Marina and Artur Eisen as Varlaam, both in excellent form. Alexander Vedernikov as Godunov may be past his vocal prime, but the singing is adequate and the acting has exactly the right nuances -- and beautiful sound is emphatically not what "Boris" is about. The secondary roles are rather unevenly but, on the whole, acceptably filled, with outstanding performances by Vladimir Matorin as Pimen, Andrei Sokolov as Shuisky and Janis Sporgis as the Simpleton. Vladimir Fedoseyev conducts the USSR TV and Radio Large Symphony Orchestra and chorus in a dramatically compelling performance, and the digital sound has a fine clarity and dynamic range.