The Outsider Looks West

Classic Arts Features   The Outsider Looks West
While Russia's great 19th-century composers may have looked inside the borders of their own country for inspiration, they were well aware of what was filling the seats in French and Italian opera houses. As Mussorgsky's epic Boris Godunov returns to the stage of the Met, George Loomis takes a look at the European operatic tradition and at what the Russian composers embraced and what they rejected.

We are inclined think of 19th-century Russian composers as deliberately working outside the European tradition. Borne on a wave of nationalism, they often turned inward, taking inspiration from their native musical heritage and emphasizing originality in form and content. With Modest Mussorgsky, the impression is reinforced by his image as an outsider, a rough-hewn genius whose alleged musical gaucheries were corrected by his more 'learned' colleague, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (who was also self-taught but had to master musical academics when he became a professor at the St. Petersburg conservatory). Yet Western works were an ever-present force on Russian music, whether as objects to be reacted against or stimulated by. The greatest of Russia's national operatic epics, Boris Godunov, shows signs both of rejecting Western practice and of embracing aspects of large-scale French and Italian operas.

One way French and Italian elements could find their way into Boris was through Mikhail Glinka's two operas, A Life for the Tsar (1836) and Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842). Both have a wealth of Italianate cantilena and play out on vast, Meyerbeerian canvases where ballet and chorus occupy an important place. Glinka could do no wrong in the eyes of Mussorgsky and his fellow members of the Russian Five or Mighty Handful of composers. They esteemed Glinka as the first Russian composer of genius, but his operas were not soon to have successors, in part because of the craze for Italian opera that swept St. Petersburg in the 1840s. An Italian opera troupe, with lavish financial support from Czar Nicholas I, became ensconced in the Bolshoi Kammeny (Great Stone) Theatre, displacing the native company, which was left to languish. Some Russian composers wrote operas for the Italians, but when subscribers complained that they weren't getting the genuine article, Russian operas were banned from the Great Stone Theatre on orders from the czar, who controlled Russia's theaters as a monopoly.

Among the composers affected was Alexander Dargomizhsky, whose grand opera Esmeralda, completed in 1841, had to wait six years for its premiere. Although the real culprit was Czar Nicholas' authoritarian regime, Dargomizhsky took out his frustrations on Western musical style. Convinced that he was blazing a trail of dramatic truth, he set Pushkin's "little tragedy," The Stone Guest, largely verbatim, relying exclusively on recitative and arioso for a work that lacks set numbers and other attributes of a conventional libretto. Intrigued by the idea, the 29-year-old Mussorgsky decided to give Nikolai Gogol's comedy The Marriage similar treatment. With his goal that music "be the artistic reproduction of human speech in all its subtlest twistings," the result was even more radical than The Stone Guest. Stirred by the boldness of the idea, the critic Vladimir Stasov proclaimed that the music of the future was not Wagner but Dargomizhsky and Mussorgsky. Yet after hearing The Marriage at an 1868 private performance of Act I (the only act Mussorgsky completed), even Dargomizhsky thought Mussorgsky had gone too far, probably because of the dissonant intervals and irregular phrase lengths of the vocal lines.

Abandoning The Marriage, Mussorgsky quickly began work on Boris Godunov, based on Pushkin's drama about a guilt-ridden, late-16th-century czar whose essentially good character is undone by a single misdeed, the murder of the young czarevich Dmitri that cleared his way to the throne. (In fact, the historical Boris had nothing to do with Dmitri's death.) The composition of Boris proceeded on the same esthetic premise as that of The Marriage but with more ingratiating, less angular vocal lines. A return to the Italianate vocal style of Glinka was out of the question, but in other respects Boris, even in its radical initial version, shows an affinity with both the French and the Italian operatic traditions. As historical drama, it traces back to Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, but an influence on both composers was Meyerbeer, the leading practitioner of that operatic genre. If the Five thought it their duty to oppose Italian opera, Meyerbeer, who was very popular in Russia in the 1850s, aroused less hostility. The grandeur of the Coronation Scene is worthy of his French grand operas, and his use of local color proved an attractive precedent for infusing scenes with an overtly Russian musical flavor. In addition, although the essential plot ingredients of Boris come directly from Pushkin, the way that tragic scenes are intermingled with lighter ones is a characteristic of grand opera.

It is also a characteristic of Verdi's La Forza del Destino, which had its world premiere in St. Petersburg in 1862. We don't know specifically what Mussorgsky thought of it, but Alexander Borodin, a member of the Five, informs us that as a young guards officer Mussorgsky was well acquainted with Il Trovatore and La Traviata. In 1875, a year after the belated premiere of Boris, he extolled Verdi (apropos of Aida) for "outdistancing everything, outdistancing everyone, even himself." Both Boris and Forza have a broad range of character types. The comic monk Varlaam is an alcoholic cousin of Verdi's buffo Fra Melitone, and each has a more pious counterpart in, respectively, Pimen and Padre Guardiano. The Hostess of the Inn is a kind of Preziosila shorn of her bellicosity, and both operas have offstage choruses of pilgrims and (in Boris's revised version) of monks. "For the panoramic vision of Boris Godunov embracing the highest and lowest in society in an alternation of contrasted scenes," Julien Budden observed, "only La Forza del Destino could supply the model."

Robert Oldani, who has comprehensively detailed Mussorgsky's indebtedness to Verdi, sees a similarity in their use of recurring themes, although the prominence of the theme associated with Grigory, the novice monk who as the Pretender assumes the identity of the slain Dmitri, seems more akin to Wagner. Mussorgsky was said to be able to play whole scenes from Siegfried from memory. But the Five were anti-Wagner, and in any event, Mussorgsky did not strive for a Wagner-like symphonic texture.

By a six-to-one vote, the first version of Boris was rejected by the selection committee for the Imperial Theatres in 1871, with Eduard Napravnik, the longtime chief conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre, casting the single vote in its favor. It is now believed that the sole reason for the rejection was the absence of an important female character. To meet this objection, Mussorgsky created the Polish Act, which culminates in an impassioned love duet for the Pretender and a new character, the Polish aristocrat Marina Mnishek. The Polish Act significantly boosts the opera's purely lyrical element, while the prominence of chorus and ballet in a divertissement recalls French models as well as Glinka's similar treatment of Polish nobility in A Life for the Tsar. A contemporary reviewer noted a link between the sinister cleric Rangoni (another new character) and Bertram, the villain of Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable. More recently, Richard Taruskin drew a parallel between the Polish Act and Verdi's Parisian grand opera, Don Carlos, which had its Russian premiere at the time Mussorgsky was working on Boris. Each has a nocturnal Garden Scene that opens with the tenor reciting instructions for a rendezvous. Others have noted a similarity between Boris's encounter with Prince Shuisky (present in both versions) and Philip II's exchange with the Grand Inquisitor, chilling reminders of the vulnerability of a monarch's power.

Presumably, had Mussorgsky resubmitted Boris with the new Polish Act and the rest of the opera left as is, it would have been accepted. But, significantly, Mussorgsky made important changes elsewhere. He dropped the scene outside St. Basil's Cathedral, with Boris' poignant encounter with the Simpleton, and created a new scene set in the Kromy Forest (which reincorporates the Simpleton's appearance) to conclude the opera. In the process he produced another link to Forza. As in the camp-life scene of Verdi's opera, unexpected characters turn up, and both scenes show the diversity of human reactions to armed conflict. But in the bloodthirstiness of the mob, the Kromy Forest Scene is closer to the finale of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots.

Mussorgsky also made changes to the scenes that were retained, above all the scene in Boris' Kremlin apartments, with its portrait of the czar as a loving father. Among the changes were the addition of a number of genre songs, such as the Song of the Gnat, the Handclapping Song and the Song of the Parrot. In addition, Boris' central monologue was made more lyrical, strengthening the parallel to the lament of another lonely monarch, Philip II's "Ella Giammai m'amò!" In Soviet times it was standard to characterize Mussorgsky's revisions to Boris as the result of pressure from bumbling czarist bureaucrats to make the opera more conventional. But now they are regarded as the product of his free artistic will, stemming from a desire to distance the opera from the austere style of The Marriage and restore to music its traditional role as an expressive force. His efforts found support even among the Five. As Rimsky-Korsakov put it: "Enough of The Stone Guest! Music, too, is needed!"

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