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Brilliantly Recorded and Well Sung

The MHS Review 237 Vol. 3, No. 3 March 26, 1979

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David M. Greene


Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, USSR
Cast Includes: Ivan Petrov, Georgy Shulpin, Aleksei Ivanov,
Mark Resheten, Irina Arkhipova, Vladimir lvanovsky,
Valentina Klepatskaya, Tarmara Sorokina, Evgenia Verbitskaya, Aleksei
Gyeleva, Nikolai Zakharov, and Evgeni Kibkalo

Not sure how this all connects, but Mussorgsky saw his mother in jodpurs, which may have contributed to his relatively small artistic output. The good news is, this is a brilliantly recorded version of an opera, which, by the way, is NOT music with frills.

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This is essentially the Boris Godunov that the Bolshoi Theater offered on its visit to New York a few years ago. In other words, it is the Rimsky-Korsakov version. I hasten to make this point to save the purists from having to read farther and from the expense of sixteen rasbuckniks.

Modest Petrovitch Mussorgsky was a stunningly gifted, not to say revolutionary, musician. There's no arguing that, I think, even if one does not like his music. Whether he did justice to the genius given him is another matter, but it is a matter that a good many people seem willing to ignore. In fact, in some quarters Mussorgsky seems to have been elevated to sainthood. I sometimes wonder if those who have sacrosanctified him (apart from the usual crowd that hops on bandwagons because it is "right" to do so) see in him a sort of redeemer of their own dilatoriness, laziness, and other self-betray­als, but I shan't pursue the point.

Three years or so ago I did a rather irreverant piece on Mussorgsky. Though I exaggerated his failings, I insist that the thing was basically factual. But it elicited a very long reply from a Guardian of Slavic Truths who, in the course of calling me, with polite academic irony, an ignoramus, a clown, a liar, and a charlatan, informed me that Mussorgsky was the very model of a Russian gentleman-scholar, and that if he had one too many occasionally it was the fault of Tsarist repression or a broken home or having, in infancy, seen his mother wearing jodhpurs, or whatever. Well, I'm perfectly willing to accept the information that Mussorgsky tipped his hat to ladies and folded his hanky according to the dictates of Yemilia Postanova, and was at times a splendid conversationalist and dedicated collector of pressed wild anemones, if indeed he was. I am also perfectly willing to agree that his death of acute alcoholism at the age of forty-two years and one week had nothing to do with us. But what I can't overlook is his pitifully small and fragmentary output.

Have you ever heard Mussorgsky's Transcaucasian Suite? or his symphonic poem Podebrad of Bohemia? or his sonatas for piano and piano duet? or his operas Han d'Ilande and Oedipus in Athens and St. John's Eve and Salammbo and Bobil and Pugachevshschina? No? And you won't either. because they never got off the drawing board. Rimsky-Korsakoff had to put Khovantschina together [no question of vandalism there!]. lppolitov-Ivanov had to compose the second act of The Marriage. The work known as Sorochintsy Fair was tacked together in this century with Scotch tape and paperclips. What is left are the songs (which alone redeem the poor man), a few oddments for chorus, orchestra, and piano--and Boris Godunov. Compare this, if you will, with what Mendelssohn, and Schubert, and, above all, Mozart did in fewer years. (And Schubert went home bombed on more than one night, too.)

I assume that most people who keep abreast of things operatic are aware that recently there has been a growing flap about the "real" Boris, and the allegedly cynical betrayals of St. Modest by the managements of opera houses and recording companies. Three decades or so ago Shostakovitch re-orchestrated the whole work. This was deemed preferable to Rimsky-Korsakov's "desecration," notably by those who hadn't heard it. (I don't recall the Shostakovitch version's having been played stateside, and all that turned up on records, as I remember, was a scene or two featuring Rafael Arie as Boris.) In the '50's the Met put on what was supposed to be the Mussorgsky original--as "improved" by the late Karel Rathaus. This, as I recall, occasioned more vilification than gratitude--how dare Mr. Rathaus place his unworthy Polish hands on this sacred Russian ikon! (RCA produced an abridged version, featuring Giorgio Tozzi, for the subscribers to the Metropolitan Opera Record Club, or whatever it was called.) Finally, in 1969 the Met scheduled its first-ever production of the Real Thing--only to have it wiped out by the strike. Eventually it was unveiled, five or six years later. (I went--my only Met premiere, thanks to a member of the cast who was a fellow townsperson of a close friend of my sister or some such thing.) There was general, if strangely muted, rejoicing--possibly owing to the staging, the funds having apparently given out before the final scene, ending the performance with a sort of giggly whimper. Sometime afterwards the conductor, the late Thomas Schippers, injudiciously let it be known that here and there he had beefed up the 'cellos with contrabasses or something of the sort. and all hell broke loose again. The most recent stage in this strange, uneventful history was the appearance of the Angel recording with the score un-Schippersed and un-Rathaused. It produced howls of disap­pointment at the dismal failure of the performance to approach whatever it was that St. Modest had so modestly demanded.

As Ernest Newman asked long ago, "What original version?" Mussorgsky completed the opera in 1869. Fourteen months later he was told it was unacceptable. He went at it again, making radical changes, and. in the process, virtually rescoring the whole work. This version was also rejected, but somehow three scenes were smuggled into a benefit performance at the Maryinsky Theater (the St. Petersburg opera-house) in 1873. Early in 1874 the score was published (with more revisions), and the work was eventually performed (with cuts) later that year. There was a good deal of mumbling about the crude orchestration. Twenty years later Rimsky-Korsakov, whose greatest talent, perhaps, was in orchestration, took pains to decrudify (God forgive me!) the score. In essence, his version is the one most of us are familiar with, though in most performances the two final scenes have been reversed, so that the work ends with the revolting peasants rather than with the dying Tsar. But if we go back to the first "original" version. we have to give up the revolutionary scene and substitute an earlier one having to do with Boris among the starving beggars outside St. Basil's Cathedral. We also have to give up the entire third ("Polish") act. The ultra-pure purists argue that this as it should be. because the first second version (etc.) was the product of ruthless oppression. Why are there no demands that Shostako­vitch's Katerina lsmailova be junked and replaced with its first version, Lady Macbeth of the Mzensk District, which was yanked off the stage because it offended Stalin's tender sensibilities? For that matter, why no hue and cry for the original version of Verdi's Macbeth? or his Simon Boccanegra? Or, for that matter, Puccini's Madama Butterfly? Frankly, the whole so-called controversy bores the hell out of me.

What the so-called controversy overlooks is the fact that opera (living opera) is not music-with-frills. It is a form of drama, and a very potent one. And I am mortally tired of people who tell me that, as drama, opera is unnatural. It is no more unnatural than five-minute solo rants in iambic pentameter are unnatural. Or than existences in which no one ever has to perform eliminatory functions. All theater is "unnatural." (And so, I suspect, are the lives we imagine ourselves to live.) Opera, because music is an emotional, not a rational language, opens up in us another response than that of the presently over-pampered intellect. But properly done, it is "good theater" too. In a recent article on Sherril Milnes, Tony Randall notes, "Anyone who saw Jon Vickers last year in Otello or Peter Grimes, or Martti Talvela in Boris Godunov knows that these were the only [italics mine] examples of great acting New York saw last year. Grateful as I am to hear whatever it was that Mussorgsky "originally" wrote, I'm afraid it's the Gesamtkunstwerk that gets my primary attention. Twenty-five years ago I saw Boris Christoff, at the end of the hallucination scene, leave the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco stunned. There was endless silence, a sporadic patter of palms, and people simply filed out for intermission saying nothing at all. That is great theater. So is the scene at the Met where the 6'7" Martti Talvela crashes down like a felled tree. leaving a small, pale, and very frightened Tsarevitch sitting on a throne much too large for him. Both scenes are burned into my memory--musically and visually; but I am sorry to say I don't remember the scoring."

I've listened to this performance, and can tell you that it is brilliantly recorded and generally well sung. Ivan Petrov (not to be confused with the late Bulgarian baritone Ivan Petroff who sang here for years) is the ranking Boris in Russia. He sings beautiful­ly. but I must confess that his vocal acting does not grip me. Though it has been available from importers in its original Russian pressing. I find no evidence that it has been issued here before, save in "highlight" form.

Life, wherever it is shown; truth, however bitter; speaking out boldly, frankly, point-blank to men--that is my aim... I am a realist in the highest sense--that is, my business is to portray the soul of man in all its profundity.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1891)


Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, USSR

Cast Includes: Ivan Petrov, Georgy Shulpin, Aleksei Ivanov, Mark Resheten, Irina Arkhipova, Vladimir lvanovsky, Valentina Klepatskaya, Tarmara Sorokina, Evgenia Verbitskaya, Aleksei

Gyeleva, Nikolai Zakharov, and Evgeni Kibkalo

Unlike his play Mozart and Salieri, (which is based on a fantasy rather than fact), Pushkin's

play Boris Godunov is drawn from historical facts. There really was a Boris Godunov, and the play, even allowing for the poetic license, is based on fact.

Mussorgsky's op􀗽ra is almos􀗾t a word-for-word setting of the play, so that if you are fam􀗿iliar

with the play--in Russian--you should have no trouble in following the action (an English

translation is supplied, for thos􀘀e of our subscribers whose knowledge of Russian isn't quite up

to par).

Mussorgsky utilizes one or two Russian folksongs in this opera􀘁, and the lengthy choral

episodes contain some of the most glorious choral music of the late 19th century, steeped as it

is in the tradition of Russian liturgical vocal music.

After Mussorgsky died, his friend Rimsky-Korsakoff revised the opera and reorchestrated

it, so that what we now .have is, in a way, the best of two versions"'- Mussorgsky's original (with

some modifications by the composer), and the reorchestrated version by Rimsky-Korsakoff,

who also occasionally ''toned down'' the dissonant harmony of the original.

A glorious and certainly one of the most moving of operas.

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