It is profoundly ironic that the one reason why Mussorgsky was actually happy to produce a second version of his opera Boris Godunov, after essentially being forced to do so, is exactly that which makes his first 1869 version so intriguing. The composer relished the opportunity to achieve a new generosity of line in Boris’ vocal part, after his monologues in the earlier version were much drier. These, however, are remarkable in their own right for the development of several brooding orchestral themes, with the ‘leitmotifs’ clarifying the strands of the Tsar’s political thought, personal reflection and private torment.
This does not mean that it was detrimental for Mussorgsky to write Boris a commendable arioso in the 1872 version. It is, however, interesting to hear how another approach to the music does highlight different aspects to his character, and this is the first of several reasons why it was a joy to hear the Mariinsky Opera, under the baton of Valery Gergiev, perform the 1869 version in its entirety.
The second is that most of the other alterations that Mussorgsky made for the second version were for political reasons, the opera committee of the Imperial Theatres having rejected his first. For example, the people being shown as indifferent to the will of the authorities at the end of Scene I was cut to avoid offending the censor, but the episode’s inclusion is useful in revealing much about the Russian character.
The third reason is simply that the opera is so rarely performed in its pure 1869 state. Francesca Zambello’s English National Opera production of 1998 claimed to present it, but (with good reason) inserted the closing scene from the later version, while a Proms performance from Opera North in 1992 just couldn’t resist giving John Tomlinson the 1872 monologue to sing in the Kremlin apartments scene. In fact, possibly the last time that this precise version was heard in the United Kingdom was when the same group and conductor brought it to the Proms in 2002.
The main reason, however, why it was so pleasurable to hear the Mariinsky Opera perform this Boris Godunov was that they clearly have such an affinity with it. The company provided both the orchestra and main choir, while all of the soloists, some of world class standing, had strong associations with it. Not only did everyone appear to know the work inside out physically (the principals’ music stands were barely glanced at in this concert performance), but they also seemed to penetrate the heart and soul of the piece.
Gergiev’s conducting achieved such cleanness and balance in sound that this was as smooth and refined a performance as is ever likely to be heard, and the viola and flute playing proved particularly sublime. The chorus was beautifully toned and, when appropriate, suitably charged, whether its members were portraying boyars, mourners, an indifferent crowd or enthusiastic supporters. The Tiffin Boys’ Choir also contributed handsomely to Scenes I and VI.
Several soloists truly stood out and none more so than Mikhail Kazakov in the title role. His rich bass voice had such depth and power that it positively reverberated around the Barbican hall. He also proved a fine actor in his Scene V ‘soul-searching’ – as he worked up into a frenzy on hearing of the Pretender, his eyes became more haunted, he clutched at Shuiksy’s garments on bended knee, and finally reached out to try to grasp the apparition of the dead Tsarevich. In the final scene as he prepared his son to succeed him his voice became increasingly smoky, although strength or enunciation were never compromised in the process.
Evgeny Akimov was an effective Shuisky, with a tenor voice that at full power could pierce the Barbican hall. Mikhail Petrenko and Sergey Semishkur were class acts as Pimen and Grigory, while Ekaterina Sergeyeva and Anastasia Kalagina shone as Boris’s son and daughter respectively. Andrey Popov gave a convincing portrayal of a Holy Fool who was capable of both confronting and belittling a Tsar, while Yury Vlasov revealed an excellent bass voice as Nikitich. It was also good to witness, for the most part, no applause between scenes, which would have broken the spell that had been cast over the hall. On the few occasions when the audience did give an ovation it was because what had just been witnessed was so remarkable that it was simply impossible not to acknowledge the fact.
Following the Mariinsky Opera’s three-day residency at the Barbican, its Ring Cycle will be performed at the Birmingham Hippodrome from 5 to 9 November (Das Rheingold, 5 November; Die Walküre, 6 November; Siegfried, 8 November and Götterdämmerung, 9 November). Tickets are available for both the whole Ring Cycle and individual operas. For further details and to book visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.