Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Soul of Russia: Boris Godunov

In the middle of the 19th-century, shifting political winds and rapidly changing regimes were accompanied by tides of nationalism across Europe. The arts manifest such currents through various means (achieving a variety of ends). Opera has been a primary artistic vehicle for such historical representations. Though this may not be an obvious conclusion to draw today, Opera was a populist art form until the 20th century. But that is another essay. One example should suffice. Not only the operas but the name of Verdi became a literal acronym for Italy's nascent movement of independence (Viva Emanuele, Re d' Italia).

In Russia, a circle of largely self-taught composers based in St Petersburg represented the Russian soul in music and were dubbed "The Mighty Handful." Borodin, Cui, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky effectively launched the "Petersburg School" that inspired Russian composers from Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov to Prokofiev and Stravinsky to Shostakovich.

According to the writer Solomon Volkov, the music of the so-called Petersburg school is characterized by "brilliant orchestration, exotic harmony, emotional 'wavelike' development of material a la Tchaikovsky and dramatic 'Dostoyevskian' contrasts a la Mussorgsky."

The last description is central for understanding the masterpiece of Russian opera Boris Godunov is. The Mighty Handful (or Russian Five) were interested in bringing a dose of realism to the palette of musical drama and looked to Dostoyevsky as much as any Russian writer.

Boris is based on a drama of Alexander Pushkin (the source of Tchaikovsky's most famous operas Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, among other seminal Russian musical dramas). Mussorgsky's style more closely aligns with Dostoyevsky's expressionist realism than Pushkin's lyrical romanticism. One of the novelist's specialties was the confessional monologue (the tortured conscious of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment). The composer adapts this technique and the title character has dramatic solo scenes rather than traditional arias. This "cross breeding" of music and prose happened parallel to Wagner's through-composed style of music dramas. Without Boris Godunov the operatic masterpieces of composers disparate as Debussy (Pelleas et Melisande) and Shostakovich (Lady McBeth of Mtsensk) would not be what they are.

Like Pelleas, Boris is a "slow burn" of a piece. Over three hours of music, much of it dark-hued and brooding, brings to life a tale wrought with woe. The received wisdom on Boris is that the opera has two protagonists: the title character and the Russian people. This duality works on a number of musical and dramatic levels and palpably affects those who yield to the power of this great opera.

Synopses are widely available so I will share a few examples from the opera and the new Met production available now thanks to the "Live in HD" broadcasts. The work is framed by huge ensemble tapestries that voice the people's discontent. That these scenes mirror and parallel one another is more than a formal nicety. The director of the Met production, Stephen Wadsworth (whose 11th hour ascension to that role is itself operatic) says "the opera is about history repeating itself." This is nowhere more apparent than in the scenes of "regime change" that open and close the opera. "The tragedy of history," as the Met's Season Book quotes the director, "[is] that we always forget its lessons and make the same mistakes."

If Boris is an epic political-historical drama on one level, it is a family-character drama on another. The opening scenes of the opera are great choral tapestries (lovers of Russian choral music can luxuriate in the timbre of the Met chorus which has never sounded better). The 100-voice chorus heralds the "coronation scene" where Boris accepts the Tsar's crown. Rather than the expected "pomp and circumstance" of a victory speech, his first words are "my soul is sad." Until his death in Act IV-in one of the most moving scenes for a character on any stage-Boris is haunted by his great crime. Like a tragic Shakespearean king, ambition led Boris to have the rightful heir to the crown murdered (years before the opera opens). Boris' confessional monologues throughout the opera underscore the duality of his shame and regret and his futile attempts to purge his guilt by ruling as peacefully and benevolently as he can. The intimacy of the scenes between Boris and his two children (perfectly cast in the Met production) strengthen our ties to this tortured soul and help define Boris as a fully drawn, three-dimensional tragic hero. The Met has the Boris of the present generation in the great German bass, Rene Pape. In the 15 years I have been avidly following Pape's rock-star like ascension on the world's operatic stage, he has never been more engaging than in this compelling production.

Space does not allow for the various versions, revisions and posthumous attempts to "correct" Mussorgsky's opera. Again, synopses of these facts are widely available. The composer's original 1869 version lacked a female lead and was uniformly rejected. Mussorgsky's revised 1874 version added an act set in Poland to kill several operatic birds with one stone. The "Pretender" Grigory (a heretic monk who assumes the identity of the murdered heir to the crown) flees to Poland and romances the princess Marina (the opera's prima donna is a mezzo soprano). The scheming Jesuit priest Rangoni uses this relationship in his attempts to place the Pretender on the throne and with the help of the imminent (Polish Catholic) Tsarina convert Russia to the mother church (the composer's contempt for institutions did not stop at the academy).

The so-called Polish Act thus gives Boris Godunov a prima donna, a love story, ballet music (a la Polonaise) and the grist of sub-plot intrigue. The ardent singing of the Latvian tenor Alexanders Antonenko (Grigory) and the oily, pitch-perfect characterization bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin brought to the Jesuit Rangoni sustained my attention during an act I usually skip at home. Whether the Polish Act enhances or detracts from the work as a whole is in the eye (and ear) of the beholder.

It does lengthen an already long "song." But time plays a central role in Boris, metaphorically speaking.

T.S. Eliot famously wrote near the end of his musical poems, The Four Quartets:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

(from "Burnt Norton")

One of the recurring motifs in the score is the sound of tolling bells. At the start of the coronation scene pealing chimes are punctuated by the brass with the most notorious of intervals, the tritone (an augmented 4th or diminished 5th). Known as "the devil in music" this unstable interval has been both sign and symbol since it was so termed in the medieval period. In the opera's context the portentous tolling of the bells represents time as progressive and cyclical. The tolling bells also illuminate the protagonist's diminishing grasp on reality (like Lucia, Boris disintegrates from hallucinations to death).

When the bell struck at the death of Boris, nearly 4 hours into the evening, I was not the only one in my circle of friends at the Met Monday night who wept.

And if Boris were a more conventional opera (the Polish act notwithstanding), it would end with the title character's death. But the aforementioned crowd scene which mirrors the opening is essential to Boris as a whole. The "unredeemable" quality of time is present in the mob that tortures and kills the figures it earlier feted.

Though not unique to Mussorgsky the "Holy Fool" (or "village idiot," the simpleton or yurodivy, in Russian) is a secondary-and central-character in the drama. From Shakespeare's fools and jesters to Beckett's tramps, these outcasts are prophetic voices of insight, wisdom and truth (with a capital T).

In the Met production, a larger-than-life-sized book haunts the scenes like a specter (into which the aged monk, Pimen writes his chronicle of history, ending with a chapter on Boris' crime). The yurodivy's first appearance in Act IV ends with a pivotal confrontation with Boris. In one of the most haunting moments in an evening that has lingered in my consciousness for days, the Holy Fool lies down in the book and folds one of its pages over his battered body like a blanket.

Mussorgsky identified with the Holy Fool in his own life. His friends referred to him as a yurodivy. The lament with which the entire ensemble opens the opera is assigned at the end to the lonely prophetic voice, poignant, "eternally present" and ultimately tragic as this great opera:

Flow, flow bitter tears.
Weep, weep, Christian souls!
Darkness darker than night.
Weep, weep, Russian people,
Hungry people!

[Boris Godunov is broadcast in Roanoke October 30 at 1 pm at Virginia Western Community College. For more information visit or Save the date for Opera Roanoke's next "Opera Unplugged" recital, November 7. Hear Met opera baritone Richard Zeller sing songs of Rachmaninov and much more! 540-982-2742]

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