Work: Boris Godunov
About This Work
The idea to re-cast Alexander Pushkin's verse play Boris Godunov as an opera was suggested to Modest Mussorgsky by history professor Vladimir Nikolsky during a visit to Ludmila Shestakova's home in St. Petersburg. Shestakova sent Mussorgsky a copy of
the play, which he'd adapt by the fall of 1868. The first version of Boris Godunov was composed between October 1868 and July 1869, with the orchestration done by December. Mussorgsky submitted the score of Boris to the Imperial Directorate of Theaters, which in February 1871 rejected the work. The Directorate's grounds for dismissing Boris Godunov had little to do with the revolutionary style of the opera; rather it was the lack of a central female character that was their primary concern. The Directorate recognized Mussorgsky's talent, and offered to reconsider provided an additional scene was added. Mussorgsky took this news with encouragement, and launched into a major overhaul of the opera, reaching far beyond what was required. He trimmed scenes, such as the one in Pimen's cell, and added others, including the scene in the Kromy forest, added dances, and added the role of Marina Mnishek. This version of the opera was accepted after a trial run of three scenes at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg in December 1873. Boris Godunov premiered under Nápravnik at the Mariinsky in January 1874.
Boris Godunov was an unqualified success with the Russian public from the first. It was revived five times by 1882 for a total of 22 performances, unheard of for a native Russian opera. Boris Godunov has gone on to become the most popular of all Russian operas. Internationally, the version made by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov earned this popularity through a luxuriant re-scoring of Mussorgsky's deliberately gritty orchestral textures. Hardly had the newer version begun to play the capitals of Europe before the call went out among critics to revive Mussorgsky's "original version." The problem is that there are two "original" versions that are distinctly different from one another. Starting in the 1970s, various combinations of the two became the standard for Boris, based on David Lloyd-Jones' 1975 critical edition that prints both operas side-by-side. Any combination of the 1869 and 1872 versions of Boris Godunov makes a muddle of the scenario; the 1869 version is tightly constructed in four "parts," totaling just seven scenes. It is bleak in tone and resembles Bertolt Brecht's alienist theater of the 1920s more than it does nineteenth-century opera. Boris is made more of an obvious villain in the first version than in the revision, which leaves that question open-ended. The 1872 version is also more expansive, laid out in four acts and a prologue, scenes run longer, and the edge of 1869 is softened somewhat. It wasn't until 1998 that a recording of the two versions of Boris were issued together within a single unit, and in practice the general consensus has become that one or the other Boris Godunov should be chosen when the "original" Mussorgsky score is presented.
-- Uncle Dave Lewis
Select a specific Performer, Conductor or Label or browse recordings by Formats & Featured below