I’m a total lowbrow. For decades I’ve only been able to listen to an extremely short list of classical pieces. (My highschool music teacher insisted that “classical” only applies to post-Baroque, pre-Romantic compositions, & one should always say “concert music” instead. I persist in the lowbrow way of speaking.) I can’t even listen to jazz for very long, before I start hungering for the comparative structure even rock music retains, the limits (& depth!) of song. Instrumental music is unbounded in a way that … doesn’t displease me … just doesn’t interest me. The extreme examples of this, such as Mahler’s symphonies where the tonic is never recovered, I can appreciate only if they’ve been tacked to stories—in Mahler’s case, Death in Venice. I’ve heard the unedited version of Ligeti’s “Atmospheres,” the piece used for the “light show” in 2001, & thought it ridiculous. The film version is mesmerizing. My list of classical favorites includes a lot of what music people rather contemptuously call “program music,” music written in support of a literary theme or plot: “Sheherazade,” “Pines of Rome,” “The Rite of Spring,” “Pictures at an Exhibition,” “Appalachian Spring.” You see, I think, the implication of these plebeian preferences: I like instrumental music that exists in service to the word, whether it be the linear word of taletelling or the lyric word of poetry. (Aargh—this isn’t always true. But it mostly is.)
Opera, as originally conceived in the late Renascence, blends the arts into a single performance, most noticeably poetry & music. Kierkegaard (actually one of his most flippant pseudonyms) wrote an essay where he argued that opera should be considered the highest art form because it carries out this combination of music, which embodies the sensual, & poetry, which expresses the spirit. He goes on to prove, via a devastatingly funny chain of Hegelian dialectic, that only Mozart’s Don Giovanni can be considered the greatest opera (the greatest possible opera!), because its hero is an equally perfect mix of spirit & sense.
You’d think I’d like opera then, given its “programmatic” nature & reliance on words. But no. I think it’s the women’s voices that ruin it for me. I consider a trained voice unnatural & pathetic. I don’t mind so much in the case of men, but women’s voices are so beautiful—listen to any nuns’ choir—that forcing them into the shriekiness of the soprano range (& I include mezzosoprano) seems to me vile torture. Interesting that the only opera I like is 85% bass & tenor, & was originally disqualified for performance because it contained too few female parts. I mean Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.
Mussorgsky’s, although the only version I’m familiar with—& most listeners were familiar with till late in the 20th century—is the one heavily edited by Rimsky-Korsakov. Other composers often meddled with Mussorgsky’s compositions, which they considered rough & ungainly. Rimsky tinkered with the score of Boris Godunov twice, changing the orchestration & adding segué music (some of which is still among the most loved from the opera, like the threatening bells in the coronation scene). He also switched the order of some scenes, the most drastic switch being the two scenes of the final act. In the Pushkin play the libretto’s based on, the entrance into Russia of the “false Dmitri” & Russia’s descent into its “Time of Troubles” is the conclusion. In Rimsky’s order, it precedes Boris’ death. This decision alone makes me prefer the tampered version, shocking as it is to us with our notions of copyright & authorial ownership. The opera is named after Tsar Boris, & has to finish with him. Several productions of Mussorgsky’s original (actually his second version, with extra women) were staged in the last few decades, & shifted operagoers’ tastes away from the lusher Rimsky drama: but not mine. A warning to fans of the old one.
Since the 1980s I’ve had a recording (on vinyl & then c.d.) with Boris Christoff doing almost all the bass roles—Boris, Pimen, Varlaam & a few others. I listened to it every couple years, I guess, till I got an iPod: now I hear tracks from it all the time. The first production I heard, however, was an English version with George London. My stepfather Joe had it in the living room of our house in Medford, Massachusetts. This was our sixth address since my mom’s remarriage, but I don’t recall it till Medford—must’ve been in a box before that. The living room was to the left of the front hall as you came in. The doorbell activated hanging chimes like a little Glockenspiel, which played the Big Ben sequence. Every time someone rang the bell. We disconnected it on Halloween.
Joe was a jazz cornetist. His manic-depression didn’t allow him to hold down jobs for long, but he’d been in a couple bands—swing/Big Band stuff, even Dixieland: from his records, he didn’t care for Bop or anything since. But he owned classical albums too, among them this one opera.
When Ivan the Terrible died in 1584, his son Fyodor, a pious halfwit, succeeded to the throne & ruled for fourteen years. Boris Godunov was his adviser & regent. His brother Dmitri, thought by most to be heir to the throne, died as a young boy, probably of an accident with a knife during an epileptic fit. The premise of Pushkin’s play & Mussorgsky’s libretto, that Boris had the little tsarevich murdered, completely ignores his loyal service to Fyodor & apparent contentment to be regent, & when after Fyodor’s death it takes the nobility a long time to persuade him to take the throne, the poets regard this as pompous dissembling. Russia seems to have flourished during his seven-year reign: he was an enlightened & tolerant tsar, not the poets’ guilt-harrowed tyrant. He seems to have gotten just as bad a rap, & perhaps as undeserved, as Richard III of England. Be that as it may, the Boris of the play & opera is a fascinating character in his own right.
To be continued.