Boris Godunov (Russian: Бори́с Годуно́в) is an opera by Modest Mussorgsky. The work was composed between 1868 and 1872, in St. Petersburg, Russia. It is Mussorgsky's only completed opera, and is considered his masterpiece. Its subject is the Russian ruler Boris Godunov, who reigned as Tsar from 1598 to 1605. The libretto was written by the composer, based on the drama of the same name by Aleksandr Pushkin, and on Karamzin's History of the Russian State. The composer created two distinct versions. The Original Version of 1869 was not approved for production. Mussorgsky completed a Revised Version in 1872, and although this version was also initially rejected, it eventually received its first performance in 1874. The music is written in a uniquely Russian style, drawing on the composer's knowledge of Russian folk music, and rejecting the influence of German and Italian opera.
In the autumn of 1868, Vladimir Nikolskiy, a professor of Russian Literature and an authority on Pushkin (1799–1837), suggested to Mussorgsky the idea of composing an opera on the subject of Pushkin’s drama Boris Godunov, which had finally been approved for performance in 1866.
Mussorgsky began work in October preparing his own libretto. Pushkin’s drama consists of 24 scenes, written predominantly in blank verse. Mussorgsky adapted the most theatrically effective scenes, often preserving Pushkin’s verses, and augmented these with his own lyrics. He was assisted by a study of History of the Russian State by Karamzin, to whom Pushkin’s drama is dedicated.
Mussorgsky worked rapidly, composing the vocal score and then the full score in about 14 months, at the same time holding down a civil service job. The Original Version was completed by December 15, 1869. The score was submitted to a committee of the Imperial Theaters in 1870, but was rejected for performance for its lack of a significant female role, and also due to its novelty.
Mussorgsky began recasting and expanding Boris in 1871. Three scenes were added (the two Sandomir scenes and the Kromï Scene), one cut (the Vasiliy the Blessed Scene), and another recomposed (the Terem Scene). The modifications resulted in the addition of an important female role (Marina Mniszech) and the expansion of existing female roles (additional songs for the Hostess, Fyodor, and the Nurse). The Revised Version was finished June 23, 1872, and submitted to the Imperial Theaters in the autumn.
Mussorgsky's friends took matters into their own hands by arranging the performance of three scenes at the Mariinskiy Theater on February 5, 1873. The response of the public and critics was enthusiastic, paving the way for the first complete performance, which took place on January 27, 1874. Although the audience response to the premiere was very favorable, the critical reaction was hostile. The performance was cut, partly due to problems with the censors, and partly due to the demands of Eduard Nápravník, the conductor. This practice set a precedent for subsequent performances. [See the Early Performance History in this article for more details].
Boris Godunov has been acclaimed for its originality, for the dramatic power of its choruses, for its sharply delineated characters, and for the powerful psychological portrayal of Tsar Boris.
The work has received an inordinate amount of criticism, however, despite its acknowledged strengths, for technical shortcomings: weak or faulty harmony, counterpoint, part-writing, and orchestration.
Other complaints stem from the composer's unwillingness to conform to the operatic conventions of the era. Some held the opinion that the opera had an overabundance of choruses and ensembles, and a paucity of arias. Others (for example, Cui) found the work to exhibit a lack of cohesion between scenes, making it more a musical Shakespearean chronicle than an opera.
The perception that the opera needed improvement from a technical standpoint led composers Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich, among others, to revise Boris. Rimsky-Korsakov's edition supplanted the composer's Revised Version of 1872 in the world's opera houses for some 75 years.
Recently, however, a new appreciation for the rugged individuality of the composer's style has resulted in increasing performances and recording of his original versions. In the minds of many, Boris Godunov is the greatest of all Russian operas because of its originality, power, and theatricality, regardless of any cosmetic deficiencies it may possess.
Comparison of the Authentic Versions
In the Original Version of 1869, the layout of the scenes is as follows:
This performance was an enormous success with both the public and the critics.