On This Day: The Labryinthine History of ‘Boris Godunov’

(Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) Andrey Popov as the Holy Fool, René Pape as Boris, and Oleg Balashov as Shuisky in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.”

The history of Mussorgsky’s famed “Boris Godunov” is quite extensive with many comparing it to Verdi’s “Don Carlo” in terms of its numerous versions. The truth is that the opera, like the Italian composer’s counterpart, has no definitive version.

Mussorgsky originally released a version of the opera in 1869 but then went about revising it, expanding on musical material and adding a prima donna role in the form of Marina Mniszech. By comparison, the 1869 version is all but bereft of the female presence. Moreover, the 1872 version gives the opera a symmetrical structure that features seven scenes that alternate in their emphasis. The pattern of scene emphasis ends up as such – People, Godunov, Pretender, Godunov, Pretender, Godunov, People. Of course, for many, the 1872 version’s greatest flaw is that it eliminates the St. Basil scene where Godunov is confronted by Yurodivïy, the embodiment of his conscience.

In recent times, performance practice has emphasized combinations of both versions, with the 1869 version growing in popularity in recent years.

What is most intriguing about this great opera is that subsequent versions of the work were taken up by other famed composers. Here is a quick rundown of the other musicians that have altered arguably Russia’s greatest contribution to the operatic canon.

Rimsky-Korsakov

Rimsky-Korsakov, who also aided Borodin in working through his “Prince Igor,” made revisions to Mussorgsky’s opera on two separate occasions in 1896 and 1908. After editing “Khovanshcina” and “Night on Bald Mountain” he set out to fix the perceived “weaknesses” in the score that he felt derived from some harmonies. The major changes he made include the Coronation Scene, the Inn Scene, and the Fountain Scene. He made several cuts in the 1896 version, which he restored in 1908. He also revised melodies, harmonies and altered the scene orders, which such colleagues as César Cui and Miliy Balakirev resented. In sum, he altered well over 80 percent of the score and helped it retain popularity.

Dmitriy Shostakovich

The great composer took at stab at the work in 1939-40 on commission from the Bolshoy Theatre. His version proved quite controversial as many complained that Shostakovich, who took particular liberties with the louder sections, made the work sound more like his own rather than the original intentions of the composer. He was not quite as abusive toward the original version as Rimsky-Korsakov was, but he did emphasize the brass and woodwinds more throughout. One famous alteration Shostakovich made to the work featured the sound of the monastery bell. Mussorgsky originally had a gong for that moment, which Rimsky-Korsakov kept. But Shostakovich did not find that orchestration to be dramatically effective and opted for a combination of the bass clarinet, double bassoon, French horns, gong, harps, piano, and double basses.

The Metropolitan Opera Versions

There were a number of versions commissioned by the Met Opera, due to reservations over the original version of the work. In 1953, Karol Rathaus was brought on to produce a version of his own, but it strayed too far from the original and was discarded after performances in 1953 and 1958. In 1974, the company had Thomas Schippers take on the opera in a combined version of the work made by musicologist Pavel Lamm. Lamm had combined the 1869 and 1872 versions but after the first rehearsal, Schippers started to make one revision after another.

Finally, in 1997 Igor Buketoff took on the opera, staying close to Mussorgsky’s original vision while using many of the inspired orchestrations of Rimsky-Korsakov. That version had its premiere at the Met that year.

Which is your personal favorite version of the Russian masterpiece?

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About the Author

David Salazar
Prior to creating OperaWire, DAVID SALAZAR, (Editor-in-Chief) worked as a reporter for Latin Post where he interviewed major opera stars including Placido Domingo, Anna Netrebko, Vittorio Grigolo, Diana Damrau and Rolando Villazon among others. His 2014 interview with opera star Kristine Opolais was cited in a New York Times Review. He also had the opportunity of interviewing numerous Oscar nominees, Golden Globe winners and film industry giants such as Guillermo del Toro, Oscar Isaac and John Leguizamo among others. David holds a Masters in Media Management from Fordham University. During his time at Fordham, he studied abroad at the Jagiellonian University in Poland. He also holds a dual bachelor’s from Hofstra University in Film Production and Journalism.

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