Music with Ease > Other 19th Century Opera (Russian, English, Czech, etc.) > Boris Godunov - Mussorgsky
An Opera by Modest Mussorgsky
Opera in four acts and eight scenes; libretto taken from the dramatic scenes of Pushkin which bear this title; music by Moussorgsky; produced at the Theatre Marie in Petrograd in 1874.
THE OLD NURSE
ANDREY STCHELAKOV, clerk of the Douma.. Baritone
PIMEN, monk and chronicler
THE PRETENDER DIMITRI, called Gregory
RANGONI, a Jesuit in disguise
NIKITIN (Michael) constable
The subject brings to the stage one of the most curious episodes of the history of Russia in the seventeenth century. A privy councilor of the Czar Fedor, son of Ivan, named Boris Godunov, has caused to be assassinated the young Dimitri, brother of the emperor and his only heir. On the death of Fedor, Boris, who has committed his crime with the sole object of seizing power, causes himself too be acclaimed by the people and ascends the throne. But about the same time, a young monk named Grischka escapes from his convent, discards his habit, and goes to Poland where he passes as the dead Czarevitch Dimitri. The Polish government receives him all the more cordially as it understands all the advantage such an event might afford it. Soon the pretended Dimitri, who has married the daughter of one of the most powerful magnates, puts himself at the head of the Polish army and marches with it against Russia. Just at this moment they hear of the death of Boris, and the false Dimitri, taking advantage of the circumstances, in turn usurps power which he is destined not to keep very long.
Such is the poetical drama, the arrangement of which is a little inconsistent from the scenic point of view, and which a historian of Russian music, himself a musician, M. César Cui, treats in these words:
There is no question here of a subject of which the different parts, combined in such a way as to present a necessary sequence of events, one flowing from the other, correspond in their totality to the ideas of a strict dramatic unity. Each scene in it is independent; the rôles, for the greater part, are transitory. The episodes that we see follow each other necessarily have a certain connection; they all relate more or less to a general fact, to a common action; but the opera would not suffer from a rearrangement of the scenes nor even from a substitution of certain secondary episodes by others. This depends on the fact that Boris Godunov properly speaking is neither a drama nor an opera, but rather a musical chronicle after the manner of the historical dramas of Shakespeare. Each of the acts, taken separately, awakens a real interest which, however, is not caused by what goes before and which stops brusquely without connection with the scene which is going to follow.
Let us add that some of these scenes are written entirely in prose while others are in verse and we will have a general idea of the make-up of the libretto of "Boris Godunov," which moreover offered the composer a series of scenes very favourable to music.
The score of Moussorgsky is uneven, like his talents, but nevertheless remains very interesting and indicative of a distinct personality. Although the composer was not much of a symphonist and rather indifferently understood how to manage the resources of the orchestra, although his harmony is sometimes strange and rude and his modulation incorrect and excessive, he had at least a lavishness of inspiration, the abundance and zest of which are calculated to cause astonishment. He is a musician perhaps of more instinct than of knowledge, who goes straight ahead without bothering himself about obstacles and who sometimes trips while on his way but who nevertheless reaches his object, sometimes even going beyond it by his strength of audacity.
Not much of a symphonist, as I have said, Moussorgsky did not even take the trouble to write an overture and some entractes. But certain pages of his score are not the less remarkable for their accent, their colour, and their scenic effect, and especially for the national feeling which from a musical point of view flows from them. Under this head we would point out in the first act the great military scene, which is of superb brilliance, and the chorus of begging monks; in the second, the entire scene of the inn, in which the dramatic intensity does not lessen for a second and which presents an astonishing variety of rhythm and colour, then, in the third, the chorus of female attendants, sung on a Cracovian womans air, the song of Marina is the style of a mazurka, and a great Polish dance full of go and warmth; finally the whole episode of the death of Boris, which has a really gripping effect. These are enough, in spite of the inequalities and defects of the work, to cause regret for the death of an artist endowed with a very individual style, whose instruction had been doubtless incomplete, but who nevertheless seemed called to have a brilliant future.