Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov

Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in the rarely-heard arrangement by Schostakowitsch.

Basically, Schostakowitsch augmented the woodwinds and brass, and “corrected” Mussorgsky’s raw harmonies. Unlike the more-performed Rimsky-Korsakov version, however, Schostakowitsch actually assumed Mussorgsky knew what he wanted and simply lacked the skills to accomplish it (whereas Rimsky and others assumed Mussorgsky did not even know what he wanted, and so made more radical changes). I am a fan of Mussorgsky’s raw harmonies and simple orchestrations, though, so prefer the original orchestration. But it was worth getting to hear this version.

The performance was by the Gelikon Opera, one of Moscow’s four full-time opera houses. The Gelikon Theater, however, is being renovated, and so the opera is forced to borrow stages this year. Boris was staged in a small theater, probably normally used for intimate plays. The auditorium had about ten rows total, meaning the orchestra pit took up nearly half the room. The advantage was that I really did get to hear all the nuances of Schostakowitsch’s instrumentation.

The stage was tiny, so the director can be forgiven for not trying to stage the opera so much as suggest it. To maximize the space, he set up a set of metal bleachers, and the action took place on and underneath these bleachers. However, the director cannot be forgiven for changing the plot. I am not talking about which scenes were included or omitted (always an issue with this opera), as there is no “correct” version. I’m talking about what he actually did stage. Most appalling was his decision to cast Grigory and the Simpleton as the same character (not just the same tenor, but actually the same character) – this was silly beyond belief, especially in the scenes where Grigory is the Pretender Dmitry but dressed in rags and acting clueless. Made absolutely no sense, and was so risible as to distract from the quality of the performance. It also made no sense that in this version the Rangoni and Marina are lovers. Boris’ children were made to be about ten or more years older than they really were for no good reason, perhaps so that Fyodor can be portrayed as power-hungry (something not believable if he were a small child). And Boris was completely unsympathetic. Cuts were made (not introduced by Schostakowitsch) where necessary to support these plot changes.

However, from a musical perspective, the performance was great. A very talented cast. I think their voices would have held their own in a normal theater (particularly Anatoly Ponomarev as Shuisky), and as it was they still had to project over a full-sized orchestra (with augmented winds) in a small room.

I’ll go back to Mussorgsky’s original orchestration now, but it’s sort of like hearing Mahler’s re-orchestrations of Beethoven. Good curiosity and thoughtfully done

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