Boris Godunov, by Modest Mussorgsky, performed by Yevgeni Nesterenko, Alexander Ognivtsiev, Elena Obratsova, Vladimir Atlantov, and Yuri Mazurok and the Choir & Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre conducted by Mark Ermier
I find it somewhat surprising that this is the first opera I have listened to in my car, as I have previously only heard one opera live and in person and that was some years ago when I lived in Tampa. If this opera is not a part of the general opera repertoire, it deserves to be on account of its quality as a piece as well the meaning and significance of the work when it comes to Russia’s geopolitical dilemmas. This particular three-disc presentation of Mussorgsky’s magnum opus takes a bit over 3 hours and was recorded in 1982 and remastered in 1992 and 2012, and as other reviewers have stated it is easy to recommend this particular opera to those who want to be more familiar with Russian operatic works in general, especially given the quality of the performance and its low price for those who want to add it to their cd collections. If this opera and the way it is presented would have been a challenge for non-Russians to perform, it is also a worthy challenge to listen to and understand.
This particular opera was based on Alexander Pushkin’s 19th century play, and consists of 3 or 4 acts, depending on whether one uses the Polish Act that was found in the 1872 version of the play, which this particular version of the play does use. There is a certain sense of parallelism between the titular Boris Godunov, an ambitious relative of marriage to the last Rurikid czars who has seized power after the death of Fyodor I, Dmitry having died earlier under mysterious circumstances. Boris is a conscientious ruler and desires the good of his people and only agrees to serve with the support of the boyars and notables but is quickly unpopular as a result of bad harvests that lead to immense suffering and starvation among the Russian people. Meanwhile, a false Dmitry finds himself supported as a Polish puppet and leads an army towards Moscow to overthrow Boris, while also finding himself pushed to marry an ambitious Catholic Marina. Sadly, Boris dies of unknown causes and the resulting chaos and disorder of Russian authority leads to the tragic suffering of Russia for the next several years, which is foreshadowed in the opera’s gloomy ending.
Ultimately, this opera reveals some of the stark dilemmas that are faced by Russian rulers and not only them. Weakness at the top of Russian society encourages Russia’s neighbors to seek to influence and dominate them, and the fear of being dominated by Western European culture has led Russia to support a great many harsh and autocratic leaders who sought to turn Russian fears and stoke Russian nationalism into the domination of a great many other people who wanted no part of Russia. While contemporary historians have tended to view Boris Godunov as innocent in the death of Ivan the Terrible’s son Dmitriy, there is no doubt that this young man’s death provided space for at least three pretenders to receive the support of Polish troops to be established as puppet czars, contributing to a lengthy period Russian weakness in the 17th century that is still feared even by contemporary Russians who view the post-Communist weakness of Russia as inviting the influence of the West to expand in ways that are inimical to Russian interests and the security of the fragile and vulnerable Russian identity, which must often be protected by force because of the wide gulf between the well-being of the people and what Russian leaders have generally been willing and able to provide.