Set in Russia between 1598 and 1605, Modest Mussorgsky’s opera, Boris Godunov, tells the story of a Tsar who usurps the throne by brutal means, bears witness to the suffering of his people, and, as a result of his misdeeds, descends into loneliness, remorse, paranoia, and madness, leading to his ultimate death. In the end, it is the Russian people, represented by a mighty chorus in the opera’s epic Coronation Scene, which endures.
The libretto, written by Mussorgsky, was based on a drama by Alexander Pushkin. Upon its completion in 1869, the convention-defying Boris Godunov was rejected by St. Petersburg’s Imperial Theater. In its initial form, the synopsis did not include a prominent female character or a love interest. The use of conversational Russian in the vocal lines was ahead of its time. (Göran Gademan) Mussorgsky was the most boldly progressive of the “Russian Five,” a group of nineteenth century composers who were dedicated to developing a uniquely national style. His music was filled with dark, veiled orchestration and edgy harmonies. Following Mussorgsky’s death in 1881, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the unofficial dean of the “Russian Five,” revised Boris Godunov, stripping away much of the grit. It was this version, along with a later 1940 orchestration by Shostakovich, which was performed most frequently. Only in recent years has there been a greater appreciation for the raw power of Mussorgsky’s original conception.
Below, is a brief excerpt from the original 1869 score. “Death Does Not Frighten Me” comes at the end of the fifth scene:
As [Boris Godunov] sits lost in thoughts about the misfortunes that have beset the country during his reign, Shuisky enters, bringing the news that a pretender to the crown has appeared in Lithuania. When Boris hears that the pretender goes under the name of Dimitry he is alarmed and orders the Western border to be closed. Shuisky, who twelve years earlier investigated Prince Dimitry’s death, vows to Boris that the dead boy really was the prince. He is dismissed by Boris, who remains alone, beset by visions of the dead child.
Prince Shuysky’s initial statement is serene, plaintive, and shrouded in the haze of memory. It is accompanied by dreamy pastel tones in the orchestra, which include the distant, lamenting call of the horns (1:02). The scene evaporates with Boris’ tortured interruption. The music takes a sudden ghostly turn, with snarling tremolo. The final haunting bars descend into the darkest depths of the orchestra.
This live 2017 recording, with Kent Nagano and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, features bass-baritone Alexander Tsymbalyuk in the title role, and tenor Maxim Paster in the role of Prince Shuysky. Paster, a Moscow-based Ukrainian singer who made frequent appearances with such companies as the Metropolitan Opera, the Salzburg Festival, Teatro alla Scala, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and the Bolshoi Theatre, passed away suddenly on August 31, 2023. He was 47.
- Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (1869 version), Kent Nagano, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Maxim Paster Amazon
Featured Image: Maxim Paster in a Met performance of “Boris Godunov,” photograph by Marty Sohl