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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Boris Godunov opera in prologue and four acts (rev. orch. Rimsky-Korsakov) (1908) [178:12]
Boris, Pimen, and Varlaam - Boris Christoff (bass); Marina and Fyodor - Eugenia Zareska (mezzo); Grigory - Nicolai Gedda (tenor); Rangoni and Schelkelov - Kim Borg (bass); Simpleton - Wassili Pasternack (tenor); Shuisky - Andrej Bielecki (tenor); Xenia - Ludmilla Lebedeva (soprano); Nurse, Hostess – Lydia Romanova; A Boyar – Gustav Ustinov; Simpleton – Wassili Pasternak; Officer/Guard – Stanislav Pieczora; Lavitsky – Raymond Bonte; Chernikovsky – Eugène Bousquet
Choeurs Russes de France, Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française/Issay Dobrowen
rec. Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 7–21 July 1952. ADD (Mono)
Libretto available at:
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 93926 [3 CDs: 64:40 + 68:23 + 45:23]  


Experience Classicsonline

The staging and recording of Mussorgsky’s original seven-scene version of Boris Godunov and his subsequent revised version is now so commonplace that it is something of a surprise to find a new release of Rimsky-Korsakov’s reworking of the opera. Indeed, Rimsky’s ‘corrections’, re-orchestration and scene-shifting have come in for such criticism in recent years that his handiwork - ironically designed to give the work more popular appeal and acceptance - has become almost completely neglected. 

The release by Brilliant Classics of a recording of Rimsky’s 1908 reworking is, therefore, of huge interest to anyone with a love of Mussorgsky’s masterpiece. Made in 1952 and expertly re-mastered digitally, the recording comes from the golden era of opera on disc at EMI and was produced by Walter Legge. It bears all the hallmarks of his masterly touch – seamless transitions between scenes, clear spacing between the singers and the massive choral and orchestral forces that accompany them, clarity of detail, and an overall sharpness which belies the fact that this is a 57-year-old mono recording. 

The main attraction of the recording is Boris Christoff, who not only sings the title role, but takes on two other parts – the monk Pimen, and his comic alter ego, the vagabond monk Varlaam. His singing as Godunov is masterly. His rich, resonant tone serves him well as the regal tsar in the prologue, with just the right hint of insecurity and vulnerability. Christoff’s versatility and deep understanding of the role come to the fore in the second Act. He moves naturally from expressions of warmth and tenderness with his children, to bare anger and aggression in his confrontation with Shuisky - a suitably creepy André Bielecki. Boris’s hallucination of the dead tsarevich Dimitri is truly gripping. 

The only quibble with Christoff’s performance is that the final death scene is hugely overplayed, with hyberbolic groans and death gasps. But the switching round of the final two scenes in this version does present a problem. The chaos of rebellion and disorder in the Kromy forest and the simpleton’s symbolic lament for Russia’s woes comes first, leaving Boris’s final prayer and death in need of some kind of dramatic lift to round off the opera. There are further difficulties with two scene cuts in Act Three: the meeting between the false Dimitri and Rangoni before the arrival of Marina and her guests; and Dimitri’s solo after they re-enter the castle. These omissions further strip the opera of the political questions and human dilemmas that lie at its core, reducing it from a seminal work of national significance to a romantic grand opera. 

Fortunately, the doubling and tripling of singers’ roles does not cause too much distraction for the listener. On the whole, they deliver such clearly delineated performances that they rarely sound like the same singer. Christoff makes an excellent Varlaam – boisterous, comic, bullying and finally quite chilling in the Kromy forest. As Pimen he is a little too grand for a humble, scholarly monk, although by the final Act he delivers a tender, restrained interpretation which is far removed from the mounting paranoia of the dying tsar. Indeed, the contrast between the two characters on track 10 is so clearly marked that one doesn’t at first realise that they are sung by the same singer. 

One performer not to have multiple roles is the young Nicolai Gedda as Gregory/Dimitri. He begins rather disappointingly in the opening scene of Act One. His light, airy tone, sounds too vague, and Gregory’s outrage against Boris’s supposed crimes carries little conviction. His singing is much more rewarding during the Polish castle scene as the pretender and lover Dimitri. The voice is fresh, ardent and lyrical. But he is badly matched with Eugenia Zareska as princess Marina - who also takes on the role of Boris’s son, Feodor. Her singing is stodgy and matronly, and contrasts poorly with Gedda’s youthful flair. 

The Choeurs Russes de France are superb. Their diction is perfect, and they inject real force and energy into the opera, from their supplication to Boris in the prologue, to their incarnation as rabble-rousing thugs in the Kromy forest. The orchestral playing too is sharp and dynamic. Conductor Issay Dobrowen moves his sizeable forces with tempi that are rather faster than usual, but these seem wholly appropriate to drive the action forward. And the superlative sound engineering picks out some surprising orchestral effects which are often lost even in modern studio recordings.

It is a pity that Brilliant Classics chose not to provide more substantial sleeve-notes to explain the background to this recording and the version of the opera. And there is no libretto either although one is available on the web (see above). But this is not really a recording for newcomers to the opera, or for those seeking a definitive edition. Instead, it will please seasoned listeners who know their Mussorgsky well and wish to deepen their experience of this endlessly intriguing masterpiece.

John-Pierre Joyce


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