MUSSORGSKY: Boris Godunov / Robert Lloyd, bass (Boris Godunov); Alexander Morosov, bass (Pimen); Alexei Steblianko, tenor (Grigory/Dimitri); Ludmila Filarova, mezzo-soprano (Innkeeper); Vladimir Ognovenko, bass (Varlaam); Igor Yan, tenor (Missail); Olga Kandina, soprano (Xenia); Larissa Diadkova, mezzo-soprano (Feodor); Evgenia Perlasova, mezzo-soprano (Nurse); Evgeny Bobisov, tenor (Shuisky); Olga Borodina, mezzo (Marina); Sergei Leiferkus, baritone (Rangoni); Mikhail Kit, baritone (Schehelkalov); Evgeny Fedotov, bass (Nikitich); Grigori Karasyov, bass (Mityukha); Vladimir Solodovnikov, tenor (Simpleton); Kirov Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Valery Gergiev, conductor / Philips DVD 075 089-9 or available for free streaming on YouTube
A Gramophone critic once said that although Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is always an audience favorite in the opera house, it has traditionally been a very poor seller on records. Having lived 67 years and being exposed to most of the recordings of this work, I think I have some idea why.
To begin with, nearly all recordings of the opera made before 1976 used a corrupted version of the score, orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and the one that didn’t used an even more corrupt orchestration by Dmitri Shostakovich. I know several people who love the Rimsky orchestration and one or two who like the Shostakovich, but the plain fact of the matter is that both of them “gussy up” the orchestration with dazzling string, wind and brass passages that Mussorgsky didn’t use and wouldn’t have liked. The excuse usually given for Rimsky taking a few years out of his career to orchestrate Boris is that it wouldn’t have sold to opera audiences in the original version, but since it was never performed in the West with Mussorgsky’s own orchestration until the 1970s, we have no way of really knowing this. Certainly, a host of great conductors from Arturo Toscanini to Vladimir Fedoseyev loved the Mussorgsky orchestration with its darker, more muted colors, and since Mussorgsky DID write colorful orchestrations for A Night on Bald Mountain and his later opera Khovanchina, it’s clear that he really did know what he was doing and what he wanted wasn’t Hollywood-sounding glitz.
Another problem was that at least until the 1950s, Boris was performed in America by casts singing a polyglot version. The star bass doing Boris usually performed his role in Russian (a rare exception was Ezio Pinza, who did it in Italian at the Met in 1937), but the rest of the cast normally sang in Italian. This strange situation afflicted not only the 1928 Covent Garden performance starring the incomparable Feodor Chaliapin, of which only excerpts were recorded and released, but also the 1943 Met performance starring the great Alexander Kipnis as Boris. The latter, which I’ve heard, is a good performance, especially for Kipnis but also for Kerstin Thorborg (Marina) and Leonard Warren (Rangoni), and is conducted by George Szell, but who cares when you’re using both the wrong orchestration and the wrong language? I sure don’t.
To the best of my knowledge, the first complete recording in Russian was made in the old Soviet Union in 1948-49 for Melodiya. Its big star, Mark Riezen, was a stupendous Boris, Maxim Milhailov was a pretty good Pimen, and Ivan Kozlovsky was far and away the greatest of all Simpletons, but tenor Georgi Nelepp’s fluttery, dry voice didn’t make Grigori sound as youthful as he should have, and many of the other singers had either abrasive tones or annoying vibratos. Plus it was in dry, boxy mono sound.
In 1952 Leopold Stokowski recorded scenes from the opera in Russian. The great Greek bass Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, who I saw perform Boris in the early 1980s (not much voice but a GREAT actor), performed the hat trick of singing all three bass roles, Boris, Pimen and Varlaam, in that set. Then came the first complete recording in the West, the 1952 EMI set with the great Boris Christoff and tenor Nicolai Gedda, conducted by Issay Dobrowen. Not to let some upstart Greek get the better of him, Christoff also insisted on singing all three major bass roles in the set. Christoff sang beautifully, but his range of expression was generally limited, as it was in all of his recordings, to snarling. If you watch the video clip of him performing the Prayer and Death of Boris, he was a phenomenal actor, but little of this transferred over to records. In 1962 Christoff re-recorded the opera in stereo, but except for the Marina of Evelyn Lear (a hot property in those days) and the Shuisky of British tenor Philip Langridge, Christoff spoiled the recording by not only demanding to sing all three bass roles yet again but also by imposing on EMI a bevy of his Bulgarian friends in the cast, most of whom had abrasive voices. Somewhere in between, RCA Victor put out a 2-LP album of highlights from the opera, in the Shostakovich orchestration, starring American bass Giorgio Tozzi as Boris, but it was sung in English and featured the tight, dry voice of Albert da Costa as Grigori. (There was also a pretty poor 1954 recording for Decca-London featuring a bunch of second-rate Bulgarian singers.)
1970 saw the next “glamor” recording of the opera, with a few very good singers (Nicolai Ghiaurov as Boris, Martti Talvela as Pimen and Anton Diakov as Varlaam), but also the by-then worn out voice of Galina Vishnevskaya as Marina and another bunch of abrasive Bulgarian singers such as the nasty-sounding tenor Ludovic Spiess. So you tell ME why anyone would want to own any of these recordings? You might play them once straight through, but then just skip to the scenes and singers you liked, ignoring the rest.
Then in the 1970s, there was finally a push towards the original Mussorgsky version, but as usual the Metropolitan Opera just had to hedge its bets. They tapped short-term music director Rafael Kubelik to prepare his own version of the opera. Kubelik sort of mixed original Mussorgsky in with Rimsye-Korsakov; he insisted on performing both the St. Basil’s Cathedral scene from the original 1869 version of the opera and the Kromy Forest scene from 1872; and he truncated several passages in the rest of the opera. The result was a hodgepodge that could satisfy those with a limited knowledge of the score, like my own young self (I was only 24 at the time and only knew selected scenes I had heard by Chaliapin, George London and Christoff), but not musical connoisseurs. Nevertheless, that 1975 Met production, which I saw in person, was one of the most staggeringly powerful I’ve ever witnessed. Thomas Schippers conducted as if both he and the Met orchestra were on fire—the crescendo at the end of the Coronation Scene reverberated in the theater like an explosion—and the cast was so good that to this day I can see and hear all of them as if it were just last month. Martti Talvela was a magnificent Boris, towering above the rest of the cast (he was, after all, 6 foot 8), and in the death scene he pulled off a stunt I’ve never seen since, standing at the top of a small flight of stairs and, when he died, falling down those stairs as if he’d been hit with an axe. To say that the audience was surprised would be an understatement, although by the time of the Saturday matinee broadcast he stopped doing it. But everyone was superb in both voice and acting: Paul Plishka as Pimen, Harry Theyard as Grigory, Batyah Godfrey as the Innkeeper, Donald Gramm as Varlaam, Paul Franke as Missail, Betsy Norden as Xenia, Robert Nagy as Shuisky, Mignon Dunn as Marina, William Dooley as a conniving, controlling Rangoni, and Andrea Velis as the greatest Simpleton since Kozlovsky. A tape of the broadcast was supposedly issued, briefly, on a pirate CD as Bensar OL 12575, but I’ve never seen it and don’t know how to find a copy. As a substitute, I have CDs of a later broadcast in which Wiesław Ochman, Charles Anthony, Marvis Martin, Morley Meredith and James Atherton replaced Theyard, Franke, Norden, Dooley and Velis; they’re good but just not quite as great. James Conlon, an OK conductor but no Schippers, leads the performance.
In 1976 the first recording of the authentic Mussorgsky orchestration was released. The cast included the great Talvela as Boris, Nicolai Gedda as Grigori, and a bunch of no-name Polish singers in the rest of the cast. The biggest problem was that the performance (which, like the Met production, erroneously included both the St. Basil Cathedral and Kromy Forest scenes) was miserably conducted at a snail’s pace and with no energy by Jerzy Semkow. It was so bad and had so little forward momentum that even Talvela sounded sub-par in it, and Gedda’s voice, wobbly and strained, was shot by then. This hasn’t stopped some German guy from posting the complete recording on YouTube and calling it a “reference recording,” but most people who bought it (including me) junked it shortly thereafter.
Then, in 1978, we FINALLY got a great performance from everyone in the cast—of the Rimsky version. Evgeny Nesterenko was Boris, Vladislav Piavko Grigori, Artur Eisen Varlaam, Andreai Sokolov Shuisky and the great Irina Arkhipova, looking a bit like a battleship in a dress but singing gloriously as she always did, was Marina. Boris Khaikin conducted very well, but it was only issued on video: a VHS tape put out by Kultur and, later, a DVD version by VAI. Still, insofar as the Rimsky Boris goes, this is the one to get.
For whatever reason, it took conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev five years to make the next CD of the original Mussorgsky version. His conducting was, without question, the finest I’ve ever heard of it, and he, too, had a few truly great singers: Vladislav Piavko as Grigori, Eisen again as Varlaam, Sokolov as Shuisky and Arkhipova again as Marina. But at the very heart of the recording, in the title role, he got stuck with an old, worn-out, weak and gray-sounding bass, Alexander Vedernikov. Some critics felt that he “penetrated” the character of Boris. I didn’t. He was far too droopy, soft-sounding and weak to portray the power-hungry Czar.
And the next studio recording of the original version, from 1993, had solid but unexciting conducting from Claudio Abbado, more good singers in the supporting roles (Marjana Lipovšek as Marina, Sergei Leiferkus as Rangoni, Sergei Larin as an OK Grigori and the great Samuel Ramey as Pimen), but again, no frisson, particularly not from some loser bass named Anatoly Kotcherga as Boris. Kotcherga seemed to have a pretty good voice, but every time he sang he sounded as if he was yawning. There was zero drama in his performance, so again, the recording died on the shelves.
So you tell me: with these kinds of choices, why would anyone bother to go out of their way to own most of these recordings?
Then, in 1997, we had the Valery Gergiev double bill of the complete 1869 and 1872 versions of the opera. Both were well-conducted, both had solid supporting casts, but only in the early version did we have a truly fine Boris, Nikolai Putilin. The 1872 version featured a singer who had a sort of comic-bass voice, Vladimir Vaneev. He was better than Vedernikov or Kotcherga, but not good enough to rivet or hold your attention.
Which brings us to this 1990 live performance from the Kirov Theater. Gergiev’s conducting isn’t quite as incisive as it was seven years later, nor as good as Fedoseyev, but it’s good enough to hold the opera together and never drags. The only real drawbacks in the cast are the Shuisky, Evgeny Bobisov, who has the dual infirmities of vocal strain in the high range and a wobble you can drive a Mack truck through, and a Simpleton (Vladimir Solodovnikov) who has a fine voice but doesn’t really bring out the pathos of the character. Alexander Morosov, our Pimen, sounds a little bit too baritonal for the role but sings with great understanding. The rest of the cast is absolutely superb, including a youngish Larissa Diadkova as Feodor.
But at the heart of this performance is Robert Lloyd’s Boris, and it is as fine an interpretation (and singing job) as any I’ve heard since Chaliapin. Lloyd doesn’t just do a good job; he fully inhabits the semi-psychotic Czar perfectly. One tiny moment that will give you an idea of how good he was: in the middle of Act 2, he suddenly bursts out, “Ah, Shuisky!” through clenched teeth. It’s a telling moment, and one not brought out that well by any of the previous Borises on record. His “Clock Scene” comes close to the kind of psychosis that Chaliapin exhibited, and his “Prayer and Death of Boris” is as fine as anyone’s, even Talvela’s or Nesterenko’s. And no matter how you look at it, the lack of a really commanding Boris completely undermines the rest of the opera.
Surprisingly, the negative comments by some viewers on the YouTube video are so far off the mark as to be laughable. One calls Lloyd “the nose singer.” No, I would give that title to Vedernikov. But another viewer claims that Vedernikov’s singing is superior to Lloyd’s. Russian diction, yes; singing, hell no. Interpretation, no comparison. Vedernikov is weak; Lloyd exudes strength. True, in a large barn like the Metropolitan Lloyd’s basso cantate couldn’t compete with such cannon-sized voices as those of Riezen, Christoff, Ghiaurov, Talvala or Nesterenko, but as I mentioned earlier Nicola Rossi-Lemeni with his dry and very small voice was, in person, an even more intense and interesting Boris than Talvela, great though he was. And Gergiev must have agreed with me, because when he asked to use the Covent Garden production (which was staged by someone he greatly admired, Andrei Tarkovsky, famous for science fiction movies), he also insisted on using Lloyd as Boris, even over his current Kirov Opera stock of basses.
The visual production is good but a little bizarre at times; these were the early years of Regietheater, so although we do indeed get sets and costumes that at least look like Boris’s time period we also have some strange in-the-background images. But it works better than any modern production I’ve ever seen, though not as well as that 1978 Bolshoi performance.
I can hardly recommend this performance strongly enough. It is THE version of the original Mussorgsky to own, and the best alternative to the 1978 Rimsky performance. It is a version, in fact, for the ages.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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