Premiere at La Scala 2022, the story of ‘Boris Godunov’

The opera, among the greatest masterpieces of musical theatre, has a complex gestation and history

For his ninth opening of the Scala Opera Season today, December 7, 2022, maestro Riccardo Chailly has chosen to conduct ‘Boris Godunov’ in the first version in seven scenes presented by Modest Musorgsky at the Imperial Theaters of St. Petersburg in 1869.

The opera, among the greatest masterpieces of musical theatre, has a complex gestation and history. The Russian composer, born into a family of landowners and turned to music abandoning a military career, had suffered the economic consequences of the abolition of serfdom, reducing himself to an uncertain and precarious life, undermined by alcohol and epilepsy. Boris Godunov is his first work, and it breaks the conventions of the musical theater of the time with disruptive effects.

The libretto, written by the composer, draws on Pushkin’s tragedy and Alexander Karamzin’s History of the Russian State to draw a Shakespearean drama of guilt against the background of the so-called “Time of Troubles” (1598 -1614), the years of anarchy between the death of Ivan the Terrible and the advent of the Romanovs. To do this, Musorgsky imagines a visionary and anticipatory musical language that breaks up the closed forms of traditional opera in favor of an absolute adherence to the morphology of the Russian language.

After just over a year of work, from October 1868 to December 1869, Musorgsky presents a radically innovative work to the commission of the Imperial Theaters of St. Petersburg: divided into 7 scenes, it does not have closed numbers, does not contain a sentimental plot, does not it has no relevant female part but neither does it include a heroic or amorous tenor. It is the so-called Ur-Boris or original Boris: dense, gloomy, deep. Today La Scala presents it as the inaugural title; it was then far too unusual for the commission, which rejected it by six votes to one.

Between 1871 and 1872, during a period in which he shared a room with Rimsky-Korsakov, the composer then proceeded to a radical revision (the so-called “original version”) which envisaged the addition of three new scenes. Two make up the spectacular “Polish act” in which not only a series of popular songs intervene to dampen the general gloom, but the tenor voice of Grigorij (the “false Dimitri”) finds space and heroic expansion alongside Marina, the female character who it was missing from the first version. The third, which reworks themes of the “scene of the innocent”, moves the ending from the humble tones of Boris’s death to the grandiose revolt in the Kromy forest.

Not only is the continuity broken in favor of a “picture dramaturgy” that moves between different places and times, but all the music is rewritten by toning down the realism in favor of a more accentuated lyrical momentum. The revision was sufficient to get the opera performed, which was staged at the Mariinsky on 8 February 1874, but not to decree its success. Critics and colleagues accused the author of bad taste and musical ignorance: in fact a real lynching.

The survival of the title on the stage is due in large part to the revision completed by Nikolaj Rimsky-Korsakov in 1896, who reinvents the work by covering it with a lush orchestration of immense seduction but in stark contrast to the rough and severe colors desired by Musorgsky.

Meanwhile, in 1928 the Russian musicologist Pavel Lamm published a critical revision including the two original versions in the score, respectful of the will of the author and his extremely accurate manuscripts.

The world premiere of Ur-Boris took place on February 16, 1928 in Leningrad. A new version was then prepared by Shostakovich between 1939 and 1940 and staged in Moscow in 1959. The definitive executive revival of the Ur-Boris will have to wait for the Kirov version directed by Valery Gergiev in 1992.

The different versions of Boris, observes Franco Pulcini, reflect different moments of national sentiment in Russia: the rejection of both versions desired by Musorgsky reflects the sense of inferiority of nineteenth-century Russians towards European culture and their fear of appearing primitive, brutal, savages. A sentiment to which the instrumental mastery of Rimsky-Korsakov offers refuge with its fairy-tale hue that attenuates the violence of the author’s realism.

The Soviet era, on the other hand, influences Shostakovich’s version in which the Polish act becomes a metaphor for the fear of external aggression felt by the Russians during the Cold War years. The Ur-Boris, with its Shakespearean accents and its almost religious reflection on the Dostoevskian themes of crime, guilt, inevitable punishment and the coexistence of good and evil, presents more than other versions a character of universality.