Modest Mussorgsky died of alcoholism at the relatively youthful—even for nineteenth-century Russia—age of forty-two, leaving his magnum opus unfinished. Boris Godunov, an adaptation of an 1826 play by Alexander Pushkin that for political reasons remained banned from the stage for the next forty years, has come to be regarded as the quintessential Russian opera.
A trusted lieutenant of Ivan the Terrible (r. 1533–1584), Godunov hailed from a line of Tatars who had come into Muscovite service as the Mongol legacy collapsed into warring successor states that their former Russian vassals eventually gobbled up. During the reign of Ivan’s feeble son and successor Fedor I (1584–1598), Godunov positioned himself even closer to the throne by marrying off his sister to the new ruler and enjoyed broad powers of government. The suspicious death of Prince Dmitrii, Ivan the Terrible’s younger surviving son (he had killed the eldest of three in a fit of rage), set the stage for an even greater power grab. When Fedor died childless in 1598, Godunov had himself proclaimed Tsar and reigned until he died a natural but strained death seven years later.
Ever since—and even before—the curious circumstances of Dmitrii’s demise gave rise to the conspiracy theory that his death was a cynical contract killing ordered by Godunov to clear his path to the throne. Further rumor held that Dmitrii had escaped and would return to save Russia. As Godunov sat uneasily on his throne, a runaway monk called Grigorii Otrepiev fled to neighboring Poland, claimed that he was the murdered Prince Dmitrii, and marched back supported by a Polish army. Godunov died as the False Dmitrii approached Moscow, leaving him to seize power. He lasted for about a year before he was overthrown and killed by restive Muscovites, but the story remained a powerful one and at least two other false Dmitriis emerged. Only a national struggle against the residual Polish occupation force united Russia sufficiently to restore order under the new Romanov dynasty, ironically chosen because its leader at the time was considered the weakest available candidate.
Like so many aspects of Russia’s culture and history—including the reign of the historical Boris Godunov himself—there is no definitive version of the unfinished opera. The Imperial Theaters found Mussorgsky’s original seven-scene pastiche too somber and ordered him to produce additional material to furnish a romantic love story between Dmitrii and the Polish princess Marina Mniszek, whom the pretender in history did actually marry. Ever since, discoveries of new manuscript material, re-orchestrations of the music, and re-sequencing of scenes have intrigued musicologists interested in realizing the most accurate possible version of the composer’s true intentions.
Richard Jones’s production is shared with the Royal Opera in London, where it premiered last year with Bryn Terfel in the title role. Here the chosen version is the visceral original score of 1869, which did not see the light of day until it was discovered in a Soviet archive in 1928. The basic story unfolds in essentially the same way, with only a few noticeable changes in the libretto. The major difference from other editions of the seven-scene version is the omission of the final Kromy Forest scene, in which a rebellious crowd—often interpreted as “revolutionary”—hails the arriving Prince Dmitrii. The 1869 version ends starkly with Boris’s death, a scene of pitiable contrition as he tries to warn his ill-fated son Fedor about the evils of the world and burdens of the crown.
Jones’s production is not especially inventive. Stylized walls featuring images of bells dominate all the scenes. The obvious reference is to the death knells that emerge from the orchestra during Boris’s death, which are foreshadowed as early as the equally magnificent coronation scene that opens the opera. Costumes are not temporally specific, but relatively simple garments that could easily have been worn anywhere from the actual time of the opera through the mid–nineteenth century of the opera’s provenance. A pantomime of Dmitrii’s murder, which occurs no fewer than four times during Boris’s vicissitudes, is acted above the stage, with masked men who look vaguely like ISIS fighters slashing the throat of a large child puppet spinning an oversized top. At the finale, the pantomime is repeated again, only instead of the puppet representing Dmitrii, the murder victim is the boy soprano who sings Boris’s son. The historical young Fedor Godunov was in fact murdered by the False Dmitrii’s henchmen, so the moment was a poignant reminder of the fickle nature of power. As the knife is drawn across the boy’s throat, the assembled courtiers forget all loyalty to Boris and bow to the new leader.
At the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Estonian bass Ain Anger took the leading role with a brutishness that could intersect with familial tenderness and what looked like the humble contrition required in the death scene. Stentorian though Anger was, he was nearly overshadowed by the monk Pimen, sung by his Croatian colleague Ante Jerkunica, a fellow bass who vocally duels with Boris from afar by relating the back story that inspires the False Dmitrii’s plot and confronts Boris with divine judgment for his bloody deed. It would be hard to imagine that performances of the title role do not lie near on Jerkunica’s horizon. Among the remaining cast, the Deutsche Oper’s excellent roster contributed the skilled character tenor Burkhard Ulrich in the role of Prince Shuisky, a schemer who exposes Boris’s madness (and who historically reigned as Tsar after the False Dmitrii). The young tenor Robert Watson sang a convincing Dmitrii. Matthew Newlin was moving as the Holy Fool, another archetypically Russian character who observes Boris’s failings. Ievgen Orlov and Jörg Schörner were comically effective as the wayward monks Varlaam and Missail, whose antics help Dmitrii escape Russia. The choruses carry several scenes in Boris Godunov. Deutsche Oper’s chorus master William Spaulding left for Covent Garden last year, but his legacy remains strong in masterful ensemble singing. The young Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits’s intensity brought a penetrating and impassioned reading of the score.