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Boris Godunovlocked

  • Richard Taruskin

Opera in seven scenes, or a prologue and four acts, by Modest Petrovich Musorgsky to his own libretto, adapted from the historical tragedy by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, and supplemented (in the revised version) by material partly derived from historical works by Nikolay Mikhaylovich Karamzin and others; St Petersburg, Mariinsky Theatre, 27 January/8 February 1874 (revised version; original version, Leningrad, State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet, 16 February 1928; first Rimsky-Korsakov version, concert performance, St Petersburg, Great Hall of the Conservatory, 28 November/10 December 1896, staged Moscow, Solodovnikov Theatre, Savva Mamontov’s Private Russian Opera, 7/19 December 1898; ‘standard’ version, with additional music by Rimsky-Korsakov, Paris, Opéra, 19 May 1908).

Boris Godunov

baritone or bass

Xenia his daughter


Fyodor his son


Pretender known as Grigory (under Pimen’s tutelage) [‘False Dmitry’]


Pimen hermit chronicler


Prince Vasily Ivanovich Shuysky


Andrey Shchelkalov secretary to the Boyar’s Council


Varlaam tramp


Missail tramp


*Marina Mniszek daughter of the Sandomierz commander

mezzo-or dramatic soprano

*Rangoni covert Jesuit




Yurodivïy (‘Fool-in-God’) [Holy Fool]


Xenia’s [former] wet-nurse

low mezzo-soprano

Nikitich police officer


Mityukha a peasant




*Boyar Khrushchyov


*Lewicki Jesuit


*Czernikowski Jesuit


Voices from the crowd peasants

tenor, soprano, mezzo-soprano

Boyars, their children, musketeers, royal bodyguards, police officers, *Polish lords and ladies, *maidens of Sandomierz, blind pilgrims (and the boys who guide them), inhabitants of Moscow

Setting Russia (Moscow and its environs, an inn near the Lithuanian border, Sokol’niki-on-the-Dnepr) and Sandomierz, Poland; 1598–1605

* role only in the revised version;

Pimen, Varlamm and Missail are monks in the Pushkin play and in Musorgsky’s adaptation; but owing to a censorship regulation that forbade the portrayal of Orthodox clergy on the stage, their identity had to be concealed in the original published score and libretto

The original version of Boris Godunov, composed between October 1868 and 15/27 December 1869, consists of seven scenes grouped into four ‘parts’ (acts). The revised version, accomplished between February 1871 and 23 June/5 July 1872, consists of nine scenes (six of the original, more or less radically altered, plus three newly composed) grouped into a prologue and four acts; this was the first version to be heard, with Eduard Nápravník conducting, Ivan Mel’nikov in the title role, Yuliya Platonova as Marina, Fyodor Komissarzhevsky as the Pretender, Osip Petrov as Varlaam, Antonina Abarinova as the Innkeeper and Pavel Bulakhov as the Holy Fool. A vocal score of the revised version was published in 1874; both versions are in the complete edition of Musorgsky’s works, edited by Pavel Lamm (1928).

For many years, beginning in 1896, the opera was performed exclusively in a re-orchestrated revision bv Rimsky-Korsakov (he himself conducted the première, with Fyodor Stravinsky as Varlaam), which itself exists in two versions (published in 1896 and 1908) of which the more complete second (‘standard version’ in list of premières above) is the one that first achieved international repertory status; its Paris première was produced by Sergey Dyagilev and directed by Alexander Sanin, with Felix Blumenfeld conducting, Fyodor Shalyapin as Boris and Dmitry Smirnov as the Pretender. Of other performing versions two should be mentioned: by Shostakovich (1939–40, an orchestration of the vocal score in the complete edition), used mainly at the Kirov Theatre since 1960; and by Karol Rathaus, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and used there for two decades from 1952. Since the mid-1970s Musorgsky’s own versions have gradually been displacing those of Rimsky-Korsakov and others on the world’s stages. A critical edition by David Lloyd-Jones, published in 1975, has been used increasingly since that date. The title role has been a great vehicle for Russian and Russian-style basses: Mark Reyzen sang in the première of the 1869 version, and other noted interpreters have included, besides Shalyapin, Vanni-Marcoux, Alexander Kipnis, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Boris Christoff, George London, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Martti Talvela. In recordings, some singers have taken both Boris’s role and that of Pimen or Varlaam; both Reyzen and Christ-off made recordings in which they sang all three.

Boris Godunov is the pre-eminent representative of the historical genre in Russian opera and the sole survivor of its type in the permanent international repertory (the increasingly standard Khovanshchina by the same composer being its only possible rival). It owes its position primarily, if not exclusively, to the extraordinary portrayal of the title character – one of the great bass/baritone roles, offering tremendous scope to a charismatic singing actor (it was the chief vehicle for Shalyapin’s world acclaim), clearly the creation of a musical psychologist of genius.

Boris Godunov was composed at a time when historical drama was the dominant Russian theatrical genre, musical or otherwise, reflecting the widespread conviction that art had a civic obligation – an attitude that tends to flourish in states where open discussion of public policy is not permitted. In 19th-century Russia, such discussion took place mainly in the ‘Aesopian’ guise of historiography and literary criticism – and on the stage itself, where dramatists strove to invest their work with consent ‘worthy of the attention of a thinking man’, to quote Nikolay Chernïshevsky, the most influential radical critic of the 1860s.

Musorgsky, influenced in this by a number of friends and mentors, including the historian Vladimir Nikol’sky and the arts publicist Vladimir Stasov, took these principles more seriously than any other Russian musician. He was also much preoccupied with the actual mechanics of musical representation. At first his model was Dargomïzhsky’s opera The Stone Guest, a direct setting of a short verse play by Pushkin that sought in the name of realism to bypass the artificialities of the conventional libretto. Later Musorgsky adopted (from Aristotle by way of the German literary historian Georg Gervinus) a radically positivistic theory of emotional expression and character portrayal in music by means of meticulously objective imitation of ‘natural’ conversational speech. During the late 1860s Musorgsky systematically applied this technique in a series of avowedly experimental vocal works culminating in Marriage, a recitative opera based on the unaltered prose text of a comedy by Gogol, on which he worked during summer 1868, producing one act in vocal score.

So when in the autumn of that year Nikol’sky suggested as an operatic subject Pushkin’s famous drama of Boris Godunov and his troubled reign (the acknowledged prototype for the historical spectacles that were lately so fashionable), the composer immediately recognized it as the natural and necessary field for the full deployment of his talents. The play, which had been finally cleared by the censor for stage performances in 1866, had everything: an important historical theme; a ‘Shakespearean’ mixture of poetry and prose, tragedy and comedy, which would vouchsafe the opportunity to combine the approaches of The Stone Guest and Marriage and so evade the monotony of style that had plagued both works; a wide range of character types from boyar to beggar, to be portrayed naturalistically through declamation; and a large role for the crowd that would enable the composer to project his ideas of formal realism and naturalistic declamation on a large canvas. Perhaps not least, owing to the ‘predominance of politics’ in it and the absence of romance, Boris Godunov had been pronounced unfit for (conventional) operatic treatment by Alexander Serov, the chief musical pundit of the day, to whom The Five or ‘mighty kuchka’ felt particularly hostile. Selecting Pushkin’s play as a subject was thus an act of typical ‘kochkist’-cum-realist bravado.

As to actual text, the libretto of the original version of the opera was almost entirely drawn from Pushkin. With the sole exception of Boris’s hallucination in scene 5 (suggested, ironically enough, by Holofernes’ hallucination in Judith, an opera by Serov) there is nothing in the action of Musorgsky’s drama that was not in Pushkin. The scene in Pimen’s cell and the scene at the Lithuanian border were verbatim settings of scenes from the original play (the former in verse à la Stone Guest and the latter in prose à la Marriage). Musorgsky boiled the rest of Pushkin’s play down to a length suitable for musical setting by a very simple expedient: he threw out every scene in which the title character failed to appear, leaving a total of six scenes (out of 23) from which to fashion the five remaining scenes of his libretto (two of Pushkin’s scenes being conflated to provide the text for the long one in which Musorgsky’s Boris sings his big soliloquies). The result was a characteristic canvas for what Musorgsky called opéra dialogué – i.e. a ‘sung play’ in recitative dialogue (the genre to which Pelléas, Salome and Wozzeck also belong).

Its method may have been dictated by practical necessity, but Musorgsky’s radical condensation of Pushkin’s play had the effect of casting the title character into much greater prominence than the poet had accorded him. This, of course, worked very much to the opera’s advantage, since it provided a heroic role at the centre of the drama. It was an advantage the composer was uniquely equipped to exploit, though the role achieved its full stature only in the revised version of 1872.

The concomitant disadvantage of the original libretto was the elimination of the ‘Polish’ scenes and, with them, of the only major feminine role in Pushkin’s play, that of Marina Mniszek. This deficiency, subsequent legends notwithstanding, was the sole reason for the opera’s rejection by the selection committee of the Imperial Theatres Directorate in February 1871, which (theatre being at the time a state monopoly in Russia) precluded its performance. The composer was forced to revise the opera, a task he undertook almost immediately upon receiving news of the rejection and completed at the beginning of the summer of 1872.

To meet the directorate’s demands all Musorgsky would have had to do was reinstate the love scene for Marina and the Pretender, a scene which (according to Vladimir Stasov) he had originally intended to include and even sketched, when he first embarked on the opera. In fact, he went so much further than that in revising the opera that it is impossible to regard the second version as anything less than a total re-conception, now very much at variance with Pushkin, implying not only an entirely different reading of Russian history, but an entirely different view of the nature of musical drama. The revision of Boris Godunov was motivated by considerations of historiographical ideology, dramatic tone, and consistency in the deployment of leitmotifs. At this point it will be well to give a résumé and a parallel synopsis of the two versions, on the basis of which an interpretation of their differences may be essayed (the format follows Oldani 1978); see Résumé below.

The revised Boris was no longer an opéra dialogué. In part this change was dictated by practical necessity, since Pushkin’s Polish scenes did not include the ingredients from which Musorgsky fashioned his Act 3. Musorgsky had to write the text for Marina’s aria, for the big love duet and for the scenes with Rangoni, a character absent in Pushkin, who embodied a xenophobic anti-Catholicism that was entirely the composer’s. He now freely paraphrased Pushkin even where it was possible to quote him directly. His melodies became rounder, more lyrically self-sufficient, and underwent a more conventional sort of development.


The Tsarevich Dmitry, the nine-year-old son of Ivan the Terrible, and next in line (after his feeble-minded half-brother Fyodor) to the Russian throne, is murdered in the town of Uglich in 1591, at the instigation of the boyar Boris Godunov, Ivan’s brother-in-law and regent under Fyodor (modern historians do not subscribe to the theory of Boris’s guilt, but Ivan Karamzin, the official Russian historian of the early 19th century, asserted it, and Pushkin and Musorgsky accepted it as the basis for their dramas). On Fyodor’s death in 1598, Boris is elected tsar and, after a show of reluctance, accepts and is crowned. He reigns wisely and in peace for several years and is portrayed by the dramatists as a loving father, devoted in particular to grooming his son Fyodor to succeed him and establish a dynasty.

In spite of his good intentions and wise policies, Russia is visited by famines, which those who know of Boris’s crime attribute to divine judgment. Among his enemies is an old soldier who witnessed the murder. He has become a monk and taken the name Pimen. He records Boris’s crime in a chronicle, which he shows to his ward, the novice Grigory Otrep’yev, who is exactly the same age as the slain tsarevich. Grigory vows to pose as the tsarevich risen from death and claim the throne. With two vagabond monks, Varlaam and Missail, who do not know his plan, he sets out for Poland/Lithuania, Russia’s hostile Roman Catholic neighbour to the west, to enlist support. In an inn near the border he is recognized by a patrol and narrowly escapes capture. Reaching Sandomierz, he falls in love with Marina, the daughter of the local governor, who is induced by the Jesuit Rangoni to feign love in return, so to coopt the Pretender’s campaign on behalf of the Church.

Boris is informed of the Pretender’s rise, and his formidable Polish support, by Prince Vasily Shuysky, a powerful but treacherous courtier. The news sends Boris into a paroxysm of fear, accompanied by hallucinations. He orders a church service so as to pronounce an anathema on the Pretender. On his way out he is accosted by a Holy Fool, who complains to Boris that some boys have stolen a penny from him, and that the tsar should have them killed, the way he had had the tsarevich killed. Boris asks the holy man to pray for him but is rebuffed. Shuysky now conspires with Pimen. The latter visits the court and frightens Boris with a false tale of the slain tsarevich, now a miracle-working saint, who, Pimen says, has cured him of blindness. At this Boris has a seizure and, after a last farewell to his son, whom he points out to the assembled boyars as their new tsar, expires. The Pretender, meanwhile, makes his way through the countryside, accompanied by a retinue of Jesuits and mercenaries (including Varlaam and Missail), plus an ever-increasing mob of peasants and local gentry who believe him to be the risen tsarevich. The Holy Fool, witnessing the credulous procession, laments the fate of unhappy Russia.

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Original Version, 1869

Revised Version, 1872

(underlined matter exclusive to this version)

(underlined matter exclusive to this version)


Part 1. i Courtyard of the Novodevichiy Monastery, Moscow


Prologue.i Courtyard of theNovodevichiy Monastery, Moscow

a After an orchestral introduction, a policeman is seen ordering the crowd on its knees to beg Boris to accept the throne; chorus of supplication; the policeman returns; the crowd banter with him; ordered to beg again they uncomprehendingly comply; Shchelkalov, secretary of the Boyars’ Council, exhorts the crowd with a gloomy arioso about Boris’s feigned implacability and its consequences; a group of blind pilgrims arrives to add their voices to the crowd entreating Boris.

a as in 1869 version

b The crowd again express their incomprehension, particularly of the pilgrims. They agree to come the next day to resume their entreaties, but cynically


Part 1.ii Square in the Moscow Kremlin


Prologue.ii as Part I.ii in 1869 version

Boris is crowned. Processions before and after. The new tsar expresses humility and invites all to a feast. The forced praises of the crowd are sung to the words and tune of an old Russian fortune-telling song from the L’viv-Pratsch anthology (2/1806) chosen because it happens to include the word ‘Glory!’ as a refrain.


Part 2.i Cell in the Chudov Monastery


Act 1.i Cell in the Chudov Monastery

a Pimen’s monologue, on finishing his chronicle but for one last tale

a as in 1869 version

b Chorus of monks behind the scenes

b Grigory wakes

c Grigory wakes (different music)

d Second chorus of monks behind the scenes

c Grigory recounts a dream of being exalted, then dashed

e as in 1869 version

d Pimen recalls Ivan the Terrible’s visit to the monastery and the saintliness of the late Tsar Fyodor

f as in 1869 version

e Pimen’s narrative of the murder of the Tsarevich Dmitry

f Grigory’s question about the tsarevich’s age; chorus of monks behind the scenes; Grigory’s vow

g as in 1869 version


Part 2.ii Inn on the Lithuanian Border


Act 1.ii Inn on the Lithuanian Border

a Orchestral introduction

a as in 1869 version

b Innkeeper sings a song about a drake as she darns an old padded jacket

b Arrival of Grigory, Varlaam, Missail

c as in 1869 version

c Varlaam’s first song (‘Song about Kazan’) [Pushkin quotes the first line of the song (‘Oh, ’twas in Kazan town’) in his play; it is a khorovod song, about a monk who renounces the cowl for a gayer life with women. Stasov, mistaking this reference, assumed Pushkin meant a historical song about Ivan the Terrible’s conquest of the Tatar capital in 1552. He found the text Musorgsky used in an anthology edited by Ivan Khudyakov in 1860. After his little by-play with Grigory, Pushkin’s Varlaam resumes his song with the second line, also supplied by the poet. Not knowing the original reference, Musorgsky assumed Varlaam was now singing a different song, and adapted a tune he had learnt from Rimsky-Korsakov to his own words.]

d as in 1869 version

d Varlaam waves Grigory aside and strikes up another song; while he sings, Grigory learns the way to Lithuania from the innkeeper; the police come; Grigory tries to convince them that Varlaam is the Pretender, but Varlaam, laboriously making out the warrant, exposes him; he makes a fenestral exit.

e as in 1869 version, but for the music that accompanies Grigory’s escape at the very end


Part 3 The Tsar’s Quarters (Terem) in the Kremlin


Act 2 The Tsar’s Quarters (Terem) in the Kremlin [both words and music of this scene were rewritten in 1871–2 even items that conform to the old scenario are in fact new]

a Xenia laments her lost bridegroom

a as in 1869 version

b Fyodor sings at his map

b The children with the chiming clock

c Nurse comforts Xenia

c as in 1869 version

d Song of the Gnat

e Handclapping game (text conflated from eight different children’s songs in P. V. Sheyn’s anthology of Russian folklore, 1870; music original)

d Boris’s entrance; he comforts Xenia and sends her away

f as in 1869 version

e Boris and Fyodor at the map

g as in 1869 version

f The opening portion of the title character’s great soliloquy on kingship and conscience, ‘Dostig ya vïsshey vlasti’ (‘I have attained the highest power’), set almost verbatim from Pushkin in the form of a lengthy scena in melodic recitative over an orchestral tissue of leitmotifs, most of them derived from music written earlier for Salammbô

h Boris’s monologue, recast as an aria to a heavily adapted text that refers much more openly than Pushkin’s had done to Boris’s crime and the popular discontent it has brought about. The main Iyric theme, broadly developed in the vocal part as well as the orchestra, is also a derivation from Salammbô

i Tumult of nurses’ voices offstage.

g The boyar-in-attendance announces Shuysky’s arrival and denounces his treachery.

j as in 1869 version

k Fyodor explains the disturbance offstage with his ‘Song of the Parrot’; Boris praises his narrative and encourages him to continue improving his mind

h Boris curses Shuysky, Shuysky delivers the news of the False Dmitry, Boris obtains Shuysky’s assurance that the tsarevich was truly dead in Uglich

l as in 1869 version

i Boris’s hallucination, preceded by the concluding portion of the soliloquy begun in section f above.

m Boris’s soliloquy concluded, culminating in

n The hallucination with the chiming clock


Act 3.i Marina’s Boudoir in Sandomierz Castle

a Chorus of Polish maidens serenade Marina as she dresses

b Marina’s aria (in mazurka style), expressing her haughtiness, her boredom, her ambition and her determination to use the Pretender as her path to queenhood

c Rangoni overpowers Marina and obtains her vow to help him convert the Pretender and, through him, all of Russia


Act 3.ii Garden by the Fountain

a Dmitry awaits Marina; Rangoni appears and fans his passion

b Polonaise for the ‘Pans and Pannas’ (Polish nobles)

c Marina appears; love duet


Part 4.i Square before St Basil’s

a Crowd uncomprehendingly discuss the anathema service

b Boys steal a penny from a Holy Fool

c Boris and his retinue leave the church; the crowd beseech him for bread

d The Holy Fool confronts Boris with his crime and refuses to pray for him

e The Holy Fool laments the fate of Russia


Part 4.ii Granovitaya Palace, the Kremlin


act 4.i Granovitaya Palace, the Kremlin

a Orchestral introduction (adapted from Salammbô music)

a as in 1869 version

b Shchelkalov reads Boris’s ukase convening the meeting of the Boyars’ Council to consider means of halting the Pretender’s advance

c The boyars discuss the matter, sense futility, express annoyance at Shuysky’s absence

b as in 1869 version

d Shuysky arrives and describes Boris’s hallucination

c as in 1869 version, with some small cuts (28 bars)

e Boris enters in grip of hallucination

d as in 1869 version

f Pimen’s narrative about the wonder-working Dmitry

e as in 1869 version, less six bars

g Boris’s farewell to his son

f as in 1869 version, with some small cuts (13 bars)

h Death of Boris.

g as in 1869 version


Act 4.ii A forest glade near Kromï

a Orchestral introduction, entrance of the crowd with the captive boyar Khrushchyov

b Mocking ‘glorification’of Khrushchyov (based on a folksong Musorgsky learnt from Balakirev)

c Boys steal a penny from a Holy Fool (transferred from Part 4.i, 6b in 1869 version)

d Entrance of Varlaam and Missail: their song is based on an ancient epic song Musorgsky had transcribed from the singing of the famous bard Trofim Ryabinin

e ‘Revolutionary’ chorus in da capo form: the middle section based on a song from Balakirev’s anthology of 1866

f The False Dmitry’s (Pretender’s) procession, including Jesuit hymns; Dmitry’s proclamation and the crowd’s glorification of him (procession music adapted from Salammbô)

g The Holy Fool laments the fate of Russia (from the end of Part 4.i, 6e in 1869 version).

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But if this conventionalizing turn could be indirectly attributed to the demands of the Imperial Theatres Directorate, Musorgsky bears sole responsibility for the decision he made, on completing the ‘polish Act’, to go back and refashion the central Terem scene (the old Part 3, now Act 2) as well. He happily de-Pushkinized its text, and, as he put it in a letter to Stasov, ‘perpetrated an arioso’ for the title character, very much along the more thematically generalized, lyrical lines of the love duet. At the same time he removed from the opera a great deal that was especially characteristic of his earlier manner. This applies particularly to the St Basil’s scene and the closing section of the very first scene, which in its original conception had been the boldest dramaturgical stroke: a scene of naturalistic prose recitative for the chorus. Clearly we are dealing with a retrenchment.

Its motivation may be located in a letter from Musorgsky to Rimsky-Korsakov, written during the year in which the original version was in limbo between completion and rejection (23 July/4 August 1870), following a party at which the composer had run through his opera before a handpicked audience. ‘As regards the peasants in Boris ’, he wrote with bemusement, ‘some found them to be bouffe (!), while others saw tragedy’. In other words, it became evident to the composer that his naturalistic methods carried ineluctable associations with comedy, their traditional medium. From this experience, perhaps, rather than the subsequent rejection, dated Musorgsky’s first impulse to revise his opera, born of a wish to clarify its genre – that is, to elevate its tone unambiguously to the level of tragedy.

Accordingly, to restore the title character to full tragic dimension, it was necessary not only to ‘perpetrate an arioso’ for him but to surround the arioso with a profusion of trivial genre pieces. (The new Terem scene was modelled, in fact, on the second act of Cui’s William Ratcliff: in both a lengthy divertissement full of songs and games is suddenly interrupted by the entrance of the stern baritone protagonist, who, having dispersed the revellers, proceeds to sing a crucial and self-revealing monologue.) The formally petty methods of naturalism are replaced by larger structural entities, and the subtle expressive vagaries of recitative are replaced by sustained moods, their succession calculated for maximum contrast. As a result, to quote Abram Gozenpud, the foremost Soviet historian of the Russian operatic stage, ‘though much of poetic enjoyment and beauty was lost, [Musorgsky] undeniably achieved a rough and gaudy theatricality that had been lacking in Pushkin’. It seems clear, moreover, that he took the formerly despised Verdi – and particularly Don Carlos, which had its Russian première during the gestation of Boris Godunov – as an important model in achieving the dramatic scale he needed.

The new historiographical conception embodied in the revised Boris can best be viewed by comparing the Kromï Forest scene with the scene it replaced (St Basil’s). That Musorgsky never meant the two of them to be performed side by side (as has become a 20th-century tradition, originally fostered by the Moscow Bol’shoy Theatre, which in 1925 commissioned Mikhail Ippolitov-lvanov to make an orchestration of the scene suitable for insertion into the standard Rimsky-Korsakov edition) is clear from the fact that Musorgsky transferred two sections from the one to the other – physically ripped them out of the earlier score, in fact. The earlier scene portrayed the crowd (following Pushkin) as cowed and submissive to the tsar. The Holy Fool, who challenges and insults Boris, is the embodiment of nemesis, which in the first version of the opera took the form of the ‘Tsar-Herod’s’ conscience.

In the revised opera, that overriding theme was replaced by another, timelier one: that of Tsar v. People, the latter viewed as the real driving force in history. It was a view that accorded with the social outlook of the 1860s and 70s, deriving not from Pushkin (still less from Pushkin’s historical source, the ‘Caesaristic’ Karamzin), but from the writings of Ivan Kostomarov, a populist historian. In Kromï the crowd is viewed in active revolt against the criminal tsar. At the same time, and almost paradoxically, their music is far less ‘radical’ than the crowd music in the earlier version. Instead of mass recitative, it is now a series of vast choral numbers in strophic, or (especially telling) da capo form. In making the crowd a tragic protagonist (literally so, in Aristotelian terms: though powerful and just in its righteous condemnation of Boris, they have a tragic flaw, namely the credulousness that causes them to accept the claims of the Pretender), Musorgsky subjected their music to the same kind of formal ‘elevation’ as he had the music of their antagonist in Act 2.

A similar concern for formal unity (expressed through symmetry) governs the whole of the revised Boris, quite belying the frequent complaint (true enough if applied to the radically ‘realist’ first version) that the opera is an ‘inorganic’ assemblage of disconnected scenes. The three focal characters in the revised scenario – Tsar, Pretender, Crowd – are balanced in a palindromic equilibrium, with the people, seen from two radically differing points of view, as the alpha and omega:

The final perspective from which to view the revised Boris Godunov as a total musico-dramatic conception pertains to the use of leitmotifs. On the face of it, their importance is much diminished. The earlier version of the opera was saturated with identifying and recalling themes, with every character, however insignificant, so equipped; with Boris given a complex of as many as half a dozen leitmotifs; and with the theme alternately associated with the Pretender and the dead tsarevich harped upon to the point where it becomes (as Oldani has put it) the opera’s idée fixe. In the three newly composed scenes of the revised version, the role of leitmotifs (except for the Pretender’s) is minimal. In the revised Terem scene, they are much attenuated, particularly with reference to the title character and his central monologue. The role of the Pretender’s leitmotif, however, is both expanded and refined, in a way that affects not only his portrayal, but Boris’s as well. Where in the earlier version the leitmotif could refer either to the ‘real’ or the False Dmitry, their confusion (especially in Boris’s mind) being the whole point of its deployment, in the new version its treatment is stricter, to magnificently ironic effect. It now refers only to the Pretender – except in Boris’s deranged mind, where just as unwaveringly it refers to the slain infant heir. The consistency with which otherwise inexplicable alterations (particularly deletions) realize this change leaves no doubt as to Musorgsky’s intention. It accounts not only for the removal of Pimen’s narrative of the murder from the Cell scene, it also makes plain the rationale for certain mysterious small cuts in the Death scene. One of the items cut there, for example, is a line from Boris’s farewell to his son that contains the warning ‘Silyon zioy Samozvanets!’ (‘the evil Pretender is strong’), set to the leitmotif that otherwise (for Boris) links up only with his victim, not his punisher.

From the dual perspective of ideological updating and elevation of tone it is possible to explain virtually all aspects of the Boris Godunov revision. The one cut that Musorgsky seems to have made primarily in the interests of dramatic pacing is Shchelkalov’s reading of the ukase in the Death scene, which merely recapitulates information already well known to the audience. It was deleted from the original version before submission to the theatre.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s version still has its adherents. Its virtues, besides the surefire orchestration that made such an overwhelming impression in Paris, can be gauged from a trio of comparative examples drawn from the title role. In ex.1, the beginning of the central Act 2 aria, Rimsky expertly inserted a single chord to effect a polished modulation. In ex.2, from the climax of the aria, Rimsky transposed the second half of the melody to give the singer (now definitely a baritone) a more felicitous tessitura. In ex.3, from the Act 4 farewell, Musorgsky’s organum-like archaisms were replaced by a more grateful, Balakirevesque ‘modality’ that skirts forbidden parallels. Stravinsky may have been unfair to accuse his former teacher of having perpetrated a ‘Meyerbeerization’ of Musorgsky’s work; the original, too, owed a heavy debt to Meyerbeer (as what 19th-century historical opera did not?). But Rimsky did conventionalize it in ways that may have facilitated its early acceptance, but now seem gratuitously to soften the harsh and hopeless impression Musorgsky calculated his opera to produce. The composer’s revised version, it now seems clear, is a work not of raw genius alone but of a fastidious dramatist in sure command of his materials. It possesses an integrity of structure, of style and of purport – in short, of sullen historical vision – no other version, least of all the ad hoc conflations that have increasingly become the rule, can match.