Boris Godunov is the favourite Russian opera of Graham Vick, who first collaborated with the Mariinsky Theatre in the 1990s with Sergei Prokofiev’s War and Peace. Vick is staging the composer’s original 1869 version, once rejected out of hand by the theatre’s maestro di cappella. the stage director and his “co-author”, the designer Stuart Nunn, are keeping the details about the production under closely guarded wraps.
Graham Vick on the opera’s ideas: “In the 16th century the All-Russian autocrat Ivan the Terrible asked for the hand of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Soon thereafter Holinshed published his historic chronicles in which Shakespeare discovered the story of one of Scotland’s kings – Macbeth. Three hundred years later Karamzin was to write his History of the Russian State , from which Pushkin borrowed the plot for his play in the Shakespearean spirit – Boris Godunov. And yet again dim and distant history was re-evaluated as a universal drama. Existentialist searches of the 19th century engendered a swamp of nihilistic works that depicted the human life cycle as one that was preordained to meet with disaster. From Wagner’s Ring to Musorgsky’s stunning work – Boris, a man moved by highly complex claims and aspirations, a man obsessed with the need for eternal life and who created so much – we come to negation, disappointment and devastation. Pimen tries to attain immortality not through his pupil Otrepiev but through his “baby” – his Chronicle; Boris seeks eternal life in his son to whom he bequeaths the throne that brought him himself nothing but fear and despair. For whose sake? For Fyodor’s or for his own? The church tries to humanise itself through its union with Boris – aren’t Otrepiev’s unmasking and the timely requiem for Dmitry just a political manoeuvre the aim of which is to consolidate worldly power?
Great writers and composers base their works on stories of old, but seeing the past and foreseeing the future is something they can only do through the prism of their own experience. This stage interpretation of Musorgsky’s opera means searching for a theatre idiom that makes sense in our time; a dialogue that can show us how we are both like and unlike those distant times.”
The opera is being rehearsed by: Yevgeny Nikitin, Nikolai Putilin and Vladimir Vaneyev (Boris Godunov); Ivan Khudyakov, Yulia Matochkina and Konstantin Yefimov (Fyodor); Oxana Krupnova and Eleonora Vindau (Xenia); Yevgeny Akimov, Vasily Gorshkov and Alexei Steblianko (Prince Vasily Shuisky); Alexander Gergalov and Alexei Markov (Andrei Shchelkalov); Vladimir Felyauer, Mikhail Kit and Alexander Morozov (Pimen); Andrei Ilyushnikov, Sergei Semishkur and Sergei Skorokhodov (Grigory Otrepiev); Gennady Bezzubenkov and Alexei Tanovitski (Varlaam); Nikolai Gassiev, Vasily Gorshkov and Andrei Zorin (Missail); Olga Savova, Lyubov Sokolova and Elena Vitman (the Hostess of the Inn); and Andrei Popov and Dmitry Voropaev (the Simpleton).
Modest Musorgsky began composing Boris Godunov in October 1868. The work advanced at the most prodigious rate. The composer needed just over one year to complete the clavier and the score of the first version by December 1869. In the autumn of 1870 Musorgsky presented the completed opera to the Board of the Imperial Theatres in St Petersburg. The music and theatre committee, however, which included the theatre’s maestro di cappella, rejected it and returned it to the composer. As Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov subsequently wrote, “The innovative nature and unusual quality of the music left the honourable committee in a quandary, and they upbraided the composer, among other things, for the lack of any significant female role...” The dramaturgy of the opera in the first version, it must be said, also drew serious misgivings from Musorgsky’s friends. the critic Vladimir Stasov chided the composer for “narrowing” Pushkin’s tragedy to just Tsar Boris’ own personal drama.
As it transpired, this version of the opera was first staged at the Mariinsky Theatre as late as 1997!
By June 1872 Musorgsky had written a second version of the opera – without the “Scene near St Basil’s Cathedral” but with the “Polish Act” and a new final scene (“A Forest near Kromy”). By the time of the premiere (27 January 1874, Mariinsky Theatre) a clavier of the opera had been published which contained the music of both previous versions. This is why there are three versions of Boris Godunov, and all by the composer. After the composer’s own versions there followed others by different composers, the most famous of which is that by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov which has but a mere handful of bars that were not amended in some way. Other versions include those by Pavel Lamm (score and clavier after the composer’s originals, 1928), Dmitry Shostakovich (instrumentation of Lamm’s clavier, 1940) and British conductor and music historian David Lloyd-Jones (a unified version of the composer’s score and clavier, 1974 and 1975).
At the Mariinsky-Kirov Theatre the opera has been staged on numerous occasions, beginning in 1874 – a total of ten different productions! the production by Vsevolod Meyerhold (1911, designed by Alexander Golovin) in which the role of Boris was performed by Fyodor Chaliapin naturally went down in the annals of Russian operatic history. in the Soviet era Boris was tackled by the acclaimed directors Sergei Radlov (1928 and 1941, designed by Vladimir Dmitriev and Fyodor Fyodorovsky), Ilya Shlepyanov (1949) and Boris Pokrovsky (1986).
The 1869 version was first staged at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1997 by Alexander Adabashian then later, in 2002, by Viktor Kramer together with designer George Tsypin.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s production, too, continues to exist in the theatre’s repertoire (David Lloyd-Jones’ unified version), having been first performed in St Petersburg in 1990 and having been revived in 2005.