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Opera and the Historian

Paul Preston expresses both a historic and a musical interpretation of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.

The Royal Opera's 1983 production of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, revived at Covent Garden in late 1984, was one of the company's few undisputed international triumphs of recent years. The triumph was above all a musical one. 

David Lloyd-Jones's edition of the stark original orchestration, as opposed to the gilded version by Rimsky-Korsakov, was intensely realised by Claudio Abbado and a predominantly English cast including Philip Langridge, Robert Lloyd as Boris, Gwyne Howell and John Shirley Quirk. In the revival, James Lockhart inspired an almost equally distinguished cast to a less lyrical but faster-paced interpretation. So stunning were both sets of performances that it is almost easy to overlook the contribution of the star of the show, Andrei Tarkovsky. The Soviet producer, better known for his film work as director of Solaris, Stalker and Andrei Rublev, created a concept entirely at one with the brooding desolation of Mussorgsky's music, neither cut nor sequinned by Rimsky.

Essentially, Tarkovsky's production stressed not so much the inner psychological drama of Boris but the disasters unleashed upon the ordinary people by his lust for power. For the producer, it was evident that the key to the work lay in the opera's final words, spoken by the quintessentially Russian figure of the yurodiviy, or the simpleton, 'shadows hide the light/ dark as darkest night/sorrow, sorrow on earth/weep, weep Russian folk/ poor starving folk'. The powerful go on killing and destroying on their road to dominance, but whether under Boris or Dimitry, the imposter who succeeds him, it is the people who suffer. Tarkovsky's fixed set emphasised the cyclical nature of the gloomy fate reserved for the opera's real hero, the wretched masses.

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