Man Ray, Chess set, 1920,
© Man Ray 2015 Trust / ADAGP — Bildrecht, Wien — 2019, Photo: Telimage, Paris

Mariss Jansons died on 1 December 2019, causing an outpouring of grief throughout the music world. Like many others, the Salzburg Festival is left to remember with the utmost gratitude all the wonderful musical gifts Mariss Jansons brought to the Festival for three decades. Read the obituary

The opera Boris Godunov will be conducted by Tugan Sokhiev, thereby making his Salzburg Festival debut.

Supported by OMV and Gazprom

‘I have achieved absolute power. I have been reigning peacefully for six years now. But there is no happiness for my tortured soul.‘

Alongside Alexander Pushkin’s drama Boris Godunov, the starting point for the eponymous opera by Modest Mussorgsky was a history book: The History of the Russian State by Nikolay Karamzin, expressly mentioned by the composer on the title page of his work. Pushkin’s play was unsuccessful, but Mussorgsky viewed the text, which had been recommended to him as potential subject matter, as the right material for him: it ‘seethed and boiled’ within him, as he wrote to his friend Vladimir Stasov. Mussorgsky compressed the literary prototype, skilfully creating a drama around a split personality from the material, which deals with a turbulent period in Russian history at the turn of the 16th to the 17th century. Boris Godunov is proclaimed tsar after the true heir to the throne has been murdered on his orders. Although Boris is resolutely forward­ looking, he is held fast by the shadows of the past — and his reign is also doomed to failure because of this. We encounter him as a dictatorial potentate and as a loving father. Ultimately he dies from his own delusions, which are provoked not least by a power­-hungry young man pretending to be the murdered heir to the throne.
The main figure facing Boris is the monk Pimen, chronicler of the history of the Russian state, who wishes to conclude his work with an account of Boris’s life and work. Thus, in addition to the story of the tsar, the opera also deals with the subject of the recording of historical processes: the subjective fate of an individual is always different from the os­tensibly objective account given of it. In a kaleido­scopic sequence of individual scenes Mussorgsky draws a picture of a ruler in isolation. By contrast, in its easily manipulable nature, the chorus represent­ing the people of Russia appears as an irresponsible protagonist in a state of confusion: a people that rejoices, starves, demands and questions without any true knowledge of aim or purpose. In this way, though working with historical material, the com­poser also creates an awareness in the audience of their own times. With one of its themes being the ostensibly objective recording of actual events, the work makes it clear to us that we, too, must always take a critical, individual stance towards what is set down in black and white. The opera thus becomes virtually timeless in its significance.
In addition to Pimen, who assumes the role of counter­-figure to the tsar in Boris Godunov, the Polish princess Marina and the Jesuit priest Rangoni play important roles in that in their dealings with Boris they represent ideas which differ from those defined in the ‘official conventions of speech’ — ideas reflecting the female aspect, a different political plane and an alternative religion.
Through its psychological approach Boris Godunov transcends its historical setting, impressing its un­diminishing topicality on the audience. Moreover, a figure such as Pimen makes clear that there must always be scope for interpretation of historical events. Mussorgsky’s innovative approach also manifests itself in the musical spectrum of the opera with its overwhelming richness of sound, folkloristic-­burlesque elements and prominent use of the leitmotif.

Christof Loy’s staging of the revised and extended version of Boris Godunov, premiered in 1874, will examine the dichotomy between individual and society in the context of objective representation and subjective feeling. In presenting Mussorgsky’s opera, one could say that the Salzburg Festival is in turn working on its own historical narrative: after memorable and for their times exemplary produc­tions from the 1960s and 1990s it is now adding another link in the performance history of Boris Godunov in a staging that examines the relevance of the work for a new century.

Klaus Bertisch
Translation: Sophie Kidd

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