A good quality ‘realistic’ production worth investigating.

MODEST MUSSORGSKY: Boris Godunov (2016)  

Production: Sofia Opera, Bulgaria
Performers: Martin Tsonev (Boris Godunov)/Mario Kratsev (Fyodor)/Irina Zhekova (Kseniya)/Sofia Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Konstantin Chudovski (cond.)/Plamen Kartaloff (stage director)/Stefan Mushatov (screen director)
Studio: Dynamic [7/29/16] (Distr. by Naxos)
Video: 1.33:1 color
Audio: DTS-HD 5.1, PCM Stereo
Subtitles: French, English, Italian, German, Russian, Bulgarian, Korean
Length: 115 min.
Ratings: Audio ***  Video ***1/2 

The opera, Boris Godunov, is considered by many to be Modest Mussorgsky’s masterwork. Mussorgsky was a member of Russian nationalist composers who became known as “The Five” (along with Balakirev, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and the fairly obscure Cesar Cui.) I’ve always felt that the most interesting thing about this group is actually how comparatively few big famous masterworks came out of this cadre. Mussorgsky is probably best known for his Pictures an Exhibition; and that due to Ravel’s lush orchestration.

Boris Godunov is based on the Pushkin play about the real seventeenth-century czar who overcame attempted uprisings and the deaths of both family members and advisors to become a bridge between the Tsar, “Ivan the Terrible” and a ‘modern’ Russia. Like all the czars, Godunov’s reign and mandate was not wholly pure but he is known for calming relations with the Scandinavian states, especially Sweden. Boris is also credited with some progressivist approaches to education; both bringing in esteemed professors from France and other European countries to train the youth of his court but also in sending young men aspiring to leadership positions to study outside of Russia.

The tone of Pushkin’s play and of the operatic adaptation is largely regal, ceremonial and laudatory toward Boris. There is a necessary subplot involving court treachery and the czar’s attempted intervention in the death of Ivan’s son by his own hand (in which real incident, Boris was injured himself trying to stave off disaster.)  Mussorgsky’s music is mostly very regal and infused with a great deal of church-like orthodoxy and fervor.

What I liked most about this production is the live production in front of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria. It really gives a sense of time and place and realism. (I have always preferred a historically realistic setting for operas as opposed to a lot of the modern ‘re-envisioning’ that goes on.)

I am not an “expert” on this opera although I have always liked the music. It has been revised several times by the composer and, despite some orchestration tweaking by Rimsky-Korsakov and others, it is Mussorgsky’s own ‘final’ version of 1872 that is used most often. For vocal prowess and recording renown, the 1970 Nikolai Ghiaurov rendition – and probably his own 1986 follow up, also with Sofia, are purportedly the ones to have. I personally find nothing to quibble with in this performance, especially that of Martin Tsonev in the title role.

I found this to be a very nice performance in a wonderful outdoor verismo setting and, while the acoustics do sound ‘outdoors’ in places, there is plenty to enjoy here!

—Daniel Coombs