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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Boris Godunov (1874) (arr. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov)
Evgeny Nesterenko (bass) – Boris Godunov; Nelya Lebedeva (soprano) – Xenia; Tatiana Yerastova (mezzo) – Fyodor; Raisa Kotova (contralto) – Xenia’s Nurse; Vladimir Kudryashov (tenor) – Prince Shuisky; Yuri Mazurok (baritone) – Andrei Tchelkalov; Alexander Vedernikov (bass) – Pimen; Vladislav Piavko (tenor) – Grigory; Tamara Sinyavskaya (mezzo) – Marina Mnishek; Arthur Eizen (bass) Varlaam; Alexander Arkhipov (tenor) – Misail; Larissa Nikitina (soprano) – Tavern Hostess; Alexander Fedin (tenor) – The Idiot
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow/Alexander Lazarev
Stage Director: Irina Morozova; Designer: Fyodor Fedorovsky; Choreography: Leonid Lavrovsky; Directed for video by Derek Bailey
rec. live, Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, January 1987
WARNER MUSIC VISION 51011-1851-2 [170:00]


A sequence of beautiful wintry pictures from Moscow – the Moscow River, the Kremlin etc – bring us to the Bolshoi Theatre, a quick interior and then the applause for conductor Alexander Lazarev and we are in the pit for the prelude. After that the opera unfolds scene by scene in a lavish production, colourful, realistic, traditional, with magnificent stage-sets and a throng of choristers and extras filling the enormous stage of the Bolshoi, reminding us that the main protagonist in this opera is the Russian people. With all these crowds the action at times tends to be a bit unwieldy but the remaining impression is of something monumental and nationalistic on a stage that more than any other is associated with this opera, even though St Petersburg saw the premiere. Beautiful, gold-glittering costumes for the nobles, rags for the poor, banners waving and icons carried – this is operatic historicism at its best – or worst, depending on one’s attitude to staging aesthetics. The acting can sometimes feel a bit old-fashioned too, with over-explicit gestures, but on this stage and in this large house you need to be explicit to be noticed at all. Principally this is the same problem as in Verona, where the acting at the considerable distance most viewers see it from is OK but in close-ups on the screen they can seem exaggerated and even ridiculous. What is without question is that here we have a cast, a chorus and an orchestra with this music in their veins and guided through the score – in Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement – by one of the most reliable Russian conductors, Alexander Lazarev. At the time this was filmed he was the new Principal Conductor of the house – a position he held until 1995. The playing and choral singing is all one could wish for and there is an extra thrill to hear the deep basses of the chorus. Neither orchestra nor chorus are quite as sophisticated and polished as their counterparts on Karajan’s Vienna recording (on CD only) but to my mind this is the authentic thing and that is something to be grateful for.

The solo singing is also authentic and that is not always something to be grateful for. Shrill, wobbly sopranos and hollow-sounding contraltos seem to be the order of the day and although some of the acting redeems what we hear it is still a liability best heard once and never again. The Fyodor is quite good and in Tamara Sinyavskaya there is a Marina to be reckoned with. Hers is a classy voice with power and beauty combined and a vibrato that is well controlled.  The tenors are also a mixed bunch. Vladislav Piavko as Grigory is a good actor and he has a powerful voice but it is afflicted with that hard, penetrating tone that is a threat to both crystal glasses and eardrums. Vladimir Kudryashov’s scheming Shuisky has also a certain hardness to his voice but this is mainly a lyrical tenor and he can soften it, which he sometimes does. The best tenor singing comes from the young Alexander Fedin as the Idiot – a lyrical voice of immense beauty. It’s a pity that he obviously took on too many heavy roles too soon – on the CD “The Tchaikovsky Experience” published ten years after this Boris was made, he displays a vibrato that overshadows what beauty is still left.

For really good  singing and acting we have to go to the lower men’s voices and four veterans: baritone Yuri Mazurok admirably steady and beautiful of tone, Alexander Vedernikov, once a fine Boris on Fedoseyev’s recording released on Philips, sings a moving Pimen, Arthur Eizen repeats his large-than-life Varlaam from that same Philips set, a feast for both eye and ear, and of course Evgeny Nesterenko in the name part. He recorded it for Melodiya years before this DVD was made, a set recently made available on CD by Regis and one of the best available. But seeing him as well as hearing him, so deeply involved and still in excellent voice, is something to treasure. I heard him in concert at about this time and he was marvellous; two years later his voice had deteriorated markedly, he was unsteady and even wobbly. But at this performance he is an ideal Boris, every nuance, every inflection perfectly judged without sounding studied. His big solos should be in the collection of any bass aspiring to take on this role. He belongs in a select group of great basses together with Chaliapin, Christoff, Ghiaurov and few others, and it is easy to see his involvement during the curtain calls: he is still Boris and has still a long way to go before he has transformed to Evgeny again.

Talking of veterans it is nice to see tenor Alexander Arkhipov as Missail, the vagabond monk companion of Varlaam’s. He has been a member of the Bolshoi company since 1968 and was still singing the Emperor Altoum in the Bolshoi production of Turandot at Dalhalla in August 2005.

The video production is fairly traditional. Sometimes the producer picks a detail, a face or a gesture from a comprimario which can be entertaining but sometimes also distracts from the central action. We get some fine overviews of the scenery. The beautiful blue sets at the Castle of Sandomir (act 3 scene 1) are like a fairy-tale and get a round of applause when the curtain rises. The sound is perfectly acceptable and we are treated to some glimpses from the orchestra pit now and then. I could have wished a more generous supply of cue-points - or chapters as some companies like to call them – there are only fifteen in an opera that plays for almost three hours but that’s a minor criticism.

This is, as I have already implied, not the definitive Boris Godunov but a fascinating document of an authentic performance with singers and musicians who know this music like their own pocket. Fedin, Mazurok, Vedernikov, Eizen and especially Nesterenko in the title part give an extra frisson to the set.

Göran Forsling





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