MET Opera House building–Lincoln Center/Thursday October 14th, 2021.
Welcome back friends!
This week, welcome to one of the finest, most original, dark, mystical, beautiful, awe inspiring, 19th century, Russian opera by illustrious Russian composer Mussorgsky, from 1869, inspired by historical facts, as opera composers sometimes, choose to delve into.
Mussorgsky (1839-1881), was a particularly talented innovator of Russian music in the Romantic period (I also particularly enjoy the mood of another of his Romantic works, entitled “Pictures at an exhibition”).
Definitely a formidable and gifted composer, Mussorgsky, strove to achieve a uniquely Russian musical identity, and was capable of delivering incredibly powerful music; at times, truly spiritual and celestial, especially in this “Boris Godunov” opera, reminiscent to me, of the mysticism found also, in Poulenc’s “Le dialogue des Carmélites”.
And Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov”‘ at the MET Opera last night, showcased the composer’s original one act (7 scenes) opera, for which he also, impressively, wrote himself, the libretto. Yet again, this work is quintessentially Russian, infused with spirituality throughout, and in my opinion more of a sang theater piece, than classic opera (as it lacks true arias). It is based on the illustrious Russian play (“Boris Godunov”), by most respected and iconic Russian poet, Pushkin (1799-1837), also considered as the father of Russian literature, who also inspired, many other great Russian or Czech operas as well (from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” to Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades”, or even to Dvořák’s “Rusalka”).
And when Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov”, premiered in Europe in 1908, his reputation as a composer suddenly skyrocketed.
Gerald Abraham, a musicologist, and an authority on Mussorgsky says: “As a musical translator of words and all that can be expressed in words, of psychological states, and even physical movement, he (Mussorgsky) is unsurpassed; as an absolute musician he was hopelessly limited, with remarkably little ability to construct pure music or even a purely musical texture”.
How about that?
I also like to imagine as well, that despite Mussorgsky’s love of all things Russian, he was as well, an ardent admirer of Shakespeare’s political plays, in particular “Henry IV” (but “Hamlet” and “Mac Beth” could be considered as well, as, all are filled with intrigue, corruption, betrayals, rebellion, strained and fortunately also beautiful relationships, all behaviors that overflow as well, this dark yet compassionate opera, as they did/do in real life, at times as well, especially of course, in the political arena.
And to sum up Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov”‘s plot, just know, that it depicts a complicated time of Russian history, led by Boris Godunov (1552-1605), a complex and strong leader filled with both good intentions, and love of country, and at times, prone to dark choices. And Godunov ruled the tsardom of Russia, as a, de facto regent, from 1585 to 1598, and then, as its tsar from 1598 to 1605.
And the opera opens up on Godunov, when he is about to be chosen by an official assembly, as tsar, although he seems to accept only reluctantly, at first, despite having been the de facto peaceful, respected and successful regent for 13 years.
How about that!
But one needs to understand, in a few brushstrokes, historical facts from Godunov’s career, as a political advisor, guardian, regent, and then, finally tsar, in a complicated country to govern, filled with intrigue and corruption, even before Godunov’s time as regent or tsar, to grasp the full pathos of the opera.
Hang on to your horses!
In a nutshell, Boris Godunov, started his career at 18, in 1570, as archer of the guard, at the court of “Ivan the Terrible” (1530-1584), from the Rurik dynasty. “Ivan the terrible” was grand prince of Moscow, from 1533 to 1547, and the first Moscow ruler, who declared himself, tsar of all Russia, from 1547 to 1584.
And we need to understand also, Ivan, to understand Boris.
Grandson of Ivan the Great, “Ivan the Terrible” lost his father, Basil III, when he was 3 years old. His mother, Elena Glinskaya, ruled as regent until her death in 1538 when Ivan was 8. During this time, ruling proved chaotic, as rival “boyar” (noble) families disputed the legitimacy of her rule, and Ivan suspected his mother of having being poisoned. Oh boy, gasp!
In 1547, at 16, Ivan IV declared himself, tsar of Muscovy, and that same year, married Anastasia Romanovna. In 1549, Ivan appointed a council of advisers, who helped institute his reforms. During what is considered an ascending period of his reign, “Ivan the terrible” introduced self-government in rural regions, reformed tax collection, and instituted statutory law and church reform. In 1556,” Ivan the terrible” also instituted regulations on the obligations of the “boyar” class in service of the crown.
“Ivan the Terrible”, or Ivan IV, as a man, had a complex personality. Intelligent, yet prone to outbreaks of uncontrollable rage, especially after the death of his beloved wife Anastasia in 1560. Ivan’s reign established the current Russian territory, through ruthless means, and centralized government, for centuries to come. A ruthless monarch and skilled manipulator, “Ivan the terrible” was also a prominent theologian, an accomplished public speaker and one of the most well-educated people of his time.
Let’s get back to Godunov: after gaining “Ivan the Terrible”’s favor, by marrying at 19 years old, the daughter of a close associate of the tsar (“Ivan the Terrible”) in 1571, Godunov gave his sister Irina, to be the bride of the tsarevich Fyodor, in 1580 (Fyodor, being “Ivan the Terrible”‘s second son, his first son having been accidentally killed by “Ivan the Terrible” himself, oh boy, gasp!). Godunov was then promoted in 1580 as well, to the rank of “boyar”/noble (which allowed access to high posts in armed forces or civil administration); and in 1584, Godunov was named by “Ivan the Terrible”, to be one of the guardians of Fyodor (unfit to govern alone), who shortly afterwards, succeeded “Ivan the Terrible”. A group of “boyars” regarded Godunov as an usurper, and conspired to undermine his authority, but Godunov banished his opponents, and became, the “de facto”, ruler of Russia.
Having complete control over foreign affairs, as he became, de facto, ruler in 1585, Godunov conducted as well, many successful projects ranging, for example, from fortunate military actions, to foreign trade promotion, to construction of numerous defensive towns and fortresses, to the recolonization of Western Siberia, to the promotion for the head of the Muscovite Church, to be raised from the level of metropolitan, to patriarch in 1589.
When Fyodor died, leaving no heirs, in 1598, after 13 years of “de facto” regency by Godunov, a “zemsky sobor” (assembly of the land), elected Godunov, tsar, that same year. Tsar Boris, proving himself to be an intelligent and capable ruler, undertook another series of successful policies, such as for example, reforming the judicial system. Yet, in an effort to stay in power, and counter the “boyar” families who opposed him, Godunov, banished many “boyar” members, including of the Romanov family, instituted an extensive spy system, and ruthlessly persecuted those whom he suspected of treason. All these measures, of course, increased his opponents animosity, as did, Godunov’s failure to alleviate the suffering and poverty caused by famine, from 1601 to 1603.
Therefore, when a “pretender” claiming to be Prince Dmitry, effectively lead an army of Cossacks and Polish soldiers in 1604, to dethrone Godunov (Tsar Fyodor’s younger half brother was Prince Dmitry, who had actually died in 1591 at 7 years old, and some think Godunov had a hand in organizing Prince Dmitry’s death/murder, yet nothing is certain, historians have various points of view on this matter); so when this “false”/ “pretender” 19 year old Dmitry in fact, lead 12 years after real Dmitry’s official death, his “army”, “false” Dmitry, actually gained real support. Yet, Godunov’s army stopped the “false”/ “pretender” Dmitry’s advance towards Moscow; but with Godunov’s sudden death, resistance broke down, and the country crumbled into a period of deep chaotic times, characterized by swift and violent changes of regime, civil wars, foreign intervention, and social disorder (called the Time of Troubles), a time that did not end, until after, Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov (also called Michael Romanov), was elected tsar in 1613.
And basically, Mussorgsky’s opera, delineates Godunov’s life, as a respected, spiritually blessed by the Russian church, fatherly, generous, compassionate, patriotic tsar, also tortured by guilt, for some of his choices to maintain power, since Mussorgsky, chooses for dramatic purposes, to deliberately suggest (as in Pushkin’s play), that Godunov chose to murder young 7 year old Prince Dmitry, (oh boy, gasp!), in order to secure the throne, as tsar. (Again, in reality, there is no historical certainty on that matter, but it certainly makes for more dramatic opera). And of course, terrible paranoia, and guilt afterwards, ensues for Boris, leading ultimately, to his death.
Personally, call me sentimental, but Boris having apparently been friends with “Ivan the terrible” for years, having protected Ivan’s second son Fyodor, unfit to govern, and governed, de facto, for him, for 13 years, I can’t imagine Boris, who seemed also to be a devoted family man, though ambitious, would murder a 7 year old boy, last son of Ivan, and half brother of Ivan’s second son Fyodor, during his peaceful regency, 6 years before being officially chosen by an assembly to be tsar, especially since his 13 years regency during Fyodor’s (Ivan’s second son) tsardom, seems to have been tranquil, successful, and admired by many (according to Pushkin as well).
But then again, I may be naive.
What else can I say about Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov”?
The opera takes place in Russia, during a 7 year time frame, between 1598 and 1605, as Godunov is elected tsar, after a peaceful and spiritual time for Russia, which will progressively become turbulent, and political, and particularly difficult to govern, especially as famine sets in 3 years later, lasting 2 years.
And basically, Boris Godunov dominates the stage, in this opera, alongside the monk Pimen, and his novice Grigory a.k.a. “Pretender Dmitry”, and Shuisky, a powerful “boyar” loyal to Boris, writing the last chapter of Russia’s history; by telling from their own personal point of view, the gripping, vibrant, spiritually driven, yet complicated story of Russia, and its leaders, throughout its achievements and failures, ambitious feats and terrible choices; all leading at times to hope, pride, alongside paranoia and guilt; and these long soliloquies, are/were combined with beautiful, and incredibly powerful chorus singing, symbolizing at times, the People of Russia, or a group of “boyars”‘ love and respect for their tsar, and patriotic pride, coalescing later also, alongside their anger and upsets, at their country’s failures.
And despite “Boris Godunov”‘ lack of classic “arias”, Mussorgsky’s music for this opera is simply gorgeous, glorious, and even divinely inspired at times.
Unique, modern, incredibly expressive, mystical, just utterly moving.
And the entire cast of singers was amazing, and perfectly conducted, from the chorus to soloists, under Weigle’s superb baton; and I was especially moved by a few of them, from the Tsar Boris: wonderfully expressive, persuasive German bass, René Pape, in his nuanced portrayal of the complex Tsar Boris; to Maxim Paster, the powerful Ukrainian tenor, as loyal boyar supporter of Boris, Shuisky; to moving Estonian tenor, Ain Anger, as mystical monk Pimen; to colorful British tenor, David Butt Philip, as ambitious novice/”Pretender” Dmitry, to warm toned American bass barytone, Ryan Speedo Green, as sharp, vagrant monk Varlaam; to wonderfully clear and ebullient Russian American soprano, Erika Baikoff, as Tsar Boris’ daughter, Xenia.
All just fabulous!
Let’s now listen to René Pape’s talent:
And the regal, yet dark, sober, and solemn, imperial Wadsworth production, added to the gravitas of the opera, illustrating well, the hopes, warmth towards its ruler, and later disappointments of the Russian nation, and of its tormented leader.
So, to sum up my feelings about Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” admired last night at the MET Opera: what a unique spiritually infused, yet dark and moving tale, to have enjoyed in great company, which of course, makes one ponder, on the difficulties, victories, and often strong challenges, leaders face, to govern wisely, and ultimately help their countries flourish as much as possible.
Until next time friends!
Eternal butterflies 😊