Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov is arguably the greatest and without argument the most controversial of Russian operas. Mussorgsky made several major revisions of his score before it was accepted for its first performances. Then after his death Rimsky-Korsakov, in an attempt to salvage an opera he felt deserved a better reception than it had been given, made another wholesale revision and re-orchestration of his own.
Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov is arguably the greatest and without argument the most controversial of Russian operas. Mussorgsky made several major revisions of his score before it was accepted for its first performances. Then after his death, Rimsky-Korsakov, in an attempt to salvage an opera he felt deserved a better reception than it had been given, made another wholesale revision and re-orchestration of his own. The battle between the Mussorgskyites and the Rimsky-Korsakovists waxes strong today, but until recently Rimsky's revisions have held almost undisputed sway in performances outside Russia. But what is the situation inside Russia?
The Russian tradition is not simple. Although the general consensus there has been in favor of Rimsky-Korsakov, certain elements of Mussorgsky's original have been incorporated into performances at the Bolshoi Opera since Paul Lamm's publication of Mussorgsky's own scoring made that version more readily available. An entire scene scored by Mussorgsky is now used in Russian performances, the scene in front of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow that begins the final act. The reason Rimsky omitted this scene is clear enough: Mussorgsky had replaced it in one of his own revisions with the more elaborate scene in the wood at Kromy. These two versions have only one episode in common, the portion introducing the Simpleton, with his castigation of Boris and his sad song, which ends both scenes. Apart from this, the purpose of the two scenes is completely different. The St. Basil scene, however, leads up to the Simpleton more logically, while the scene of rebellion in the wood is a much less convincing setting for him. The Russian compromise of today is to include both scenes, before and after Boris's death scene, omitting the Simpleton from the Kromy scene until the end, where his sad song serves to end the opera. This is effective and serves to tie the act together. It is the solution also used in the new recording of Mussorgsky's original score with the Finnish bass Martti Talvela singing the part of Boris.
Since an all-Mussorgsky Boris has now been recorded, you may ask whether it has replaced all the recordings of the Rimsky Korsakov version at one fell swoop. Naturally, one will not wish to discard one's Boris Christoff or George London recordings merely for the sake of textual authenticity. Furthermore, that new recording does not make a particularly strong case for Mussorgsky, although it is valuable for the fine singing of Talvela. The tempi are almost all so slow that the momentum of the opera is lost and one tends to regard Rimsky's cuts and his more colorful scoring as good ideas. There is no question that there are major differences in the two versions, and so far the performances of Rimsky's version are musically superior. This brings us to the present MHS release, which is the first stereo all-Russian production of Rimsky's version of Boris to become available in this country.
Do you remember when the Bolshoi Opera toured America a few years ago? I was very impressed with the feeling of utter rightness with which they performed their own Russian operas, a matter of right timing and unity that only occurs with a company who has worked hard on an idiom that is part of their personal heritage. We have seen too many Russian operas done here by American companies who perform their parts with less than total understanding of what makes them work. Consider this from the standpoint of our own tradition. Would you expect a Russian performance of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess to be stylistically as satisfying as an American one? Interesting, no doubt, but parts of it would creak at the joints, at the very least. That is the difference between the other Borises available and this all-Russian one. This one just sounds right. Even the minor roles are sung with a natural expression that is the essence of a national style. And that Russian chorus is marvelous!
There is one other recording that shares this one's virtues to a great degree, and that is the one starring George London. No wonder; London made his version with the forces of the Bolshoi Theatre, including the same conductor and much the same cast that appears on this set. Both recordings boast a Maria sung by Irina Arkhipova, whose lively interpretation and marvelous voice lend a lustre to the Polish act. But, in the end, it is Tsar Boris that makes or breaks this opera, and London's performance is grafted onto a company that was built to work with another Boris. That Boris is Ivan Petrov, one of the most famous of Russian basses. Like Boris Christoff, Petrov has been compared to the first great Boris, Feodor Chaliapin, whose stage presence and vocal style electrified audiences in the early 20th century. It has been said of Chaliapin that he dominated the stage in any production in which he appeared. That has been said of Boris Christoff, too, and not always in a positive way. Petrov has the rich voice and dramatic ability of Christoff, but he does not stop the show the way Christoff does. His intensity still allows the opera to breathe, whereas Christoff always seems to be stifling in his own emotions, slowing the music to a halt while he indulges in grunts and groans. Petrov creates a better integrated Boris, yet his emotionality is more satisfying than Christoff's because he is not so much larger than life.
Ivan Petrov appears in many of the Bolshoi Opera recordings available in Russia, and is one of the most recorded singers in the Soviet Union, with six or more solo recital records to his credit, including one of Tchaikovsky songs that is particularly beautiful. With his Boris, you are in good hands. And he is the only real Russian Boris on records today. Christoff is Bulgarian; London was born in Canada (of Russian parents), and trained on this side of the Iron Curtain; and Martti Talvela, the Boris on the new all-Mussorgsky Boris recording (and also on Herbert von Karajan's idiosyncratic traversal of the Rimsky version) hails from Finland. So if real authenticity of tradition satisfies you as it does me, the new MHS recording is the one to invest in. This is at last a Boris straight from the Motherland. It never sounded better!
David Moore is a musicologist, cellist (he also plays viola da gamba)--a student of MHS 's John Hsu). and writer on musical subjects.