Boris Godunov at the Bolshoi

Ever since Fyodor Chaliapin’s triumphant appearance in the role at the Paris Opera, Boris Godunov is unqualifiedly consid­ered by Russian and world audiences to be the chief personage of Russian opera and its leading potentate. For the whole world today Mussorgsky’s opera is a key work on the abstract nature of power in general, with no need for concrete historical associations or the literal reproduction of realia.

Mussorgsky’s music, with its impetuous boldness, tangible back-to-the-soil solidity and incisive characterization, is of itself sufficient explanation for the tenacity of life of 
Boris Godunov. But for a longtime it was these very qualities which got in the way of the opera’s production, forcing the compos­er to compromise, rewrite the score, in an attempt to squeeze his epos into the canon of the usual historical drama. However, the Directorate of the Imperial Theatres rejected both his first and second revisions, passing but separate frag­ments of the work for performance. It was only Rimsky-Korsakov’s “smoothed down” version which enabled Boris Godunov to become a repertory work — but the whole of the opera’s following performance history is the story of a “return to sources”, of new editions of the score containing the latest musicological research, and, accordingly, the story of chang­ing accents in the staging.

However the placing of accents also depends on the per­sonality of the interpreter of the main role. Thus, it is well known, that one of the initiators of the Moscow 1888 pre­miere of the opera was Pavel Khokhlov, who sang the role of Boris alternating with Bogomir Korsov: the intuitive psycho­logical tension of the first-named was in contrast to the pro­fessional melodramatic training of the second-. But the real triumph was, without doubt, the production with Chaliapin. A worthy foil to Chaliapin here was Leonid Sobinov in the part of The Pretender: the personal drama of the Tsar-infanticide was played out with a soul-chilling authenticity. In the 20’s and 30’s the emphasis was put on the people’s drama: given for the first time at the Bolshoi, was the scene by St. Basil’s Cathedral, with Ivan Kozlovsky as The Simpleton. Each age has produced its great Borises: Grigory and Alexander Pirogov, Alexander Ognivtsev, Ivan Petrov, Yevgeny Nesterenko, and Vladimir Matorin have excelled in this role at the Bolshoi and abroad.

Boris Godunov
at the Bolshoi Theatre attracted no less attention from the authorities than did Ivan Susanin. Morals and conscience, relations between the authorities and the people, the seething of emotion, love and ambition, atmos­pheric genre scenes — each age accentuated something of its own. However, regardless whether it is interpreted as a polit­ical parable or a miracle-play-drama, Boris Godunov remains one of the symbols of Russian music and Russian.