Boris Godunov


Boris GodunovI’m not sure why Boris Godunov, moves me like it does, but it has a curious, emotional effect on me. It’s a sprawling tragedy mixed with politics and betrayal, weighted down by brooding and scheming characters, a fickle mob, a holy fool, a ghost, an imposter as pretender to the throne, and the overthrow of a ruler – very Shakespearean. Or perhaps Machiavellian, in the negative sense of the word.

I’ve been listening to it, again, as background music while I work at home these past few days. And every now and then I stop to listen, and marvel at the boldness, the richness of the music,the strangeness of it.

I’ve actually been listening to both versions – the original from 1869 and the version revised by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1872. I’m at a loss to say which version I prefer. The original is shorter and darker, and feels dense and moody, but the revision was the first version I encountered and still holds a special place for me. Besides, it’s not exactly light itself. But I think I lean more to the revision simply for the extra material.

I can’t recall when I first heard it, but I think it was sometime in the early 1980s, around the time I was studying the history of the Soviet Union and its institutions. I may even have discovered Pushkin’s play – on which the opera is based – first, but that may be the chicken-and-egg question. Somewhere in my library, I still have that book, just as I have the CDs of the opera in my music collection. Pushkin’s 1831 work was apparently inspired by Shakespeare’s Henry IV. But I cannot help but think of it as the Russian King Lear.

I recall driving down the road from work, in the ’80s, windows open on a summer afternoon, the opera blaring from the car in competition to the pop and rock blasting from the other drivers. I used to do that with the 1812 Overture, too. What a rebel, eh?

In general, I like opera, as I do most classical music, even if I’m the musical equivalent of a patzer when it comes to truly appreciating it. But Boris is somehow different from other operas.

Mostly I like Italian opera because it’s so dramatic and emotional and easy to listen to. But Mussorgsky’s only opera, in Russian, features a bass as the lead, making it seem darker than most. And now I know the story – I still haven’t managed to follow along in the libretto very well – it seems richer. And more demanding. It feels abrupt, shoving from scene to scene.

There are some incredible arias in opera that you’d have to be made of stone not to be moved by, even if you can’t understand the words. The popular success of Pavarotti and the Three Tenors showed that even people who normally don’t listen to opera can be moved by the arias sung by such artists. But I can’t recall ever hearing any of them sing a piece from Boris.

I can’t claim to have been moved by the story behind the opera and that led me to listen. I didn’t learn about the history on which the opera is based until long after I started listening to it. Fascinating stuff – Boris ruled as regent then Tsar after Ivan the Terrible, in the peak years of the Elizabethan Age, and Shakespeare’s artistic height. But I discovered it much later (back in the pre-Internet days when you actually had to read books…).

Boris was, from all accounts, a rather good ruler, but the opera focuses on the end of his reign and the appearance of the pretender – the False Dimitry. Well False Dimitry I. After his short reign which terminated in his assassination, he was followed by False Dimitry II then False Dimitry III. Russian history of this period is the stuff of more operas, methinks.

Nor can I say I was moved by the spectacle of the production – I didn’t see the opera (on video) until at least a decade after I first heard it. Yes, it’s a rich, visual experience, but I only learned that much later. I haven’t watched it for many years – maybe 20? – but I am now motivated to watch it again, some night when Susan is out with friends. She doesn’t care for Boris. It’s a teensy bone of contention between us, but one I’ve long become accustomed to – as I have become accustomed to listening to Boris when she’s not at home.

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