Russian revelation

January 03, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

No composer was ever more inappropriately named than Modest Mussorgsky, who aimed at nothing less than putting the Russian people and their history upon the operatic stage.

And though he was an alcoholic who died in 1881 in a fit of delirium tremens, Mussorgsky achieved that ambition in his brilliant "Boris Godunov." All his life, Mussorgsky struggled to write opera and "Boris" was the only one he ever completed -- in fact, he completed it twice (in 1869 and 1874). But that has not prevented "Boris" from leading a life as troubled as its creator's.

After Mussorgsky's death, the opera seemed destined for oblivion until it was resurrected (as well as re-orchestrated) in 1896 by his friend, the composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky recognized his friend's genius, but considered him inept as an orchestrator.

Rimsky's version, which dominated the stage for most of this century, is now generally regarded as musically and dramatically bowdlerized. He revised nearly 85 percent of Mussorgsky's original, removed many of its potentially disturbing sonic effects and placed the opera's revolutionary finale in a next-to-last position that minimized its political and dramatic power.

Since the opera's first production in the West (in Paris in 1908), "Boris" has been recognized as the greatest of all Russian operas, but has been performed in versions by Dmitry Shostakovich and others that have been purported to be, but not always been, closer to the composer's intention than the Rimsky version.

In a broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera today at 1: 30 p.m., which can be heard on WBJC-FM (91.5), "Boris" will be performed in yet another re-orchestration, by Russian-American music historian and conductor Igor Buketoff.

No one, it seems, can keep his hands off "Boris." But no matter the version used, Mussorgsky's musical genius continues 125 years later to crash upon the ear with undiminished power. Even at the end of a century filled with horrors that the composer's contemporaries could scarcely have imagined, it seems more modern than ever in its soaked-to-the-roots pessimism and its open-ended ambiguity.

Mussorgsky could have sprung to life out of the pages of a Dostoevsky novel. He was one of four inspired musical amateurs -- the others were Rimsky, Alexander Borodin and Cesar Cui -- who gathered around a father figure named Mily Balakirev and came to be known as "the Five" or "the Mighty Handful."

In 1857, when the 18-year-old Mussorgsky fell under Balakirev's influence, he seemed an unlikely candidate for immortality. As an ensign in St. Petersburg's elite Preobrazhensky Guards, Mussorgsky learned what every good officer of the Preobrazhensky had to know -- how to drink, how to gamble, how to wench, how to wear clothes, how to flog a serf and how to sit a horse. Of these, Mussorgsky found drinking the most congenial.

But Balakirev's impact was so overwhelming that, within a year of meeting him, Mussorgsky resigned his commission and plunged into the study of music. Such self-indulgence was not initially a problem. But when serfdom was abolished in 1861, and most of the Mussorgsky fortune evaporated, the budding composer was forced to take a clerk's job in the forestry department, filling a function that would now be relegated to a Xerox machine.

But if he was employed by day as a lowly copyist, he was occupied at night on the heights. Mussorgsky decided he had a mission "unexampled in the history of art: that of setting ordinary language to music."

Allied to Mussorgsky's concept of singing that came as close as possible to speech, was his desire to express the Russian people: "When I sleep, I see them; when I eat, I think of them; when I drink -- I can visualize them, integral, unpainted and without any tinsel." Such ideals could only be realized in an opera that dealt with the history of the Russian people.

Russian history

"Boris Godunov" is based on Alexander Pushkin's play of the same name. Written more than 40 years earlier, Pushkin's "Boris" is itself a 19th-century attempt to rethink Shakespeare and to translate his reading of English national history in the great Russian poet's own national history.

But Mussorgsky's "Boris" is actually more forward-looking than Verdi's "Aida" or Wagner's "Gotterdammerung, two other works inspired by 19th-century approaches to history.

If it lacks the finished craftsmanship of "Aida," it is also without that opera's sense of completed history. If it lacks the sweep of "Gotterdammerung," it is also without Wagner's manufactured mythology and artificial literary devices. And unlike the other two operas, it does not conceive of history as a battleground between erotic love and duty.

"Boris," in fact, asks us to believe in nothing. While Tsar Boris may be its most important character, "Boris" is itself without a hero, or -- for that matter -- any character with whom the audience can identify too closely.

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