29 February 2016 at 11.58am | 7 Comments
Boris Godunov is a work of conflict – between a ruler and his people; between public action and internal thought; between the voice of the individual and that of the collective. Musorgsky uses the seven scenes of his original version of the opera as a crucible in which to explore these dichotomies. The Coronation Scene, the opera’s second, is one of the work's most famous and most powerful.
The structure of the scene is simple. Bells toll as the coronation procession arrives and the people sing their praise of Boris, the new tsar. He sings a monologue in three sections: beginning caught in anxious ruminations over the future, he moves onto a prayer for guidance and ends with a celebratory invitation for all to attend the coronation feast. The procession moves on. The people sing. The bells toll. The scene ends. Musorgsky uses every element of the scene to establish the conflicts that drive the opera.
The scene begins with two deeply intoned Cs, a tam-tam lending an ominous echo. Then the bells begin to sound – not real bells yet but a re-creation in brass of the magnificent Kremlin bells, swinging to and fro between two chords. Musorgsky uses 7th chords to create a rich, gleaming sound. In a highly distinctive gesture he places the two chords a ‘forbidden’ tritone apart. Immediately we understand the ceremony’s magnificence and grandeur – but also suspect a rot at its core.
Though the chords sound alien to each other, they both include a C. The C is emphasized again in a new figure that starts over the tolling brass, woodwind and strings in an anxious motion that leaps around but returns to the C on every downbeat. The sound quickens and grows and soon real ‘great bells’ begin to chime. The orchestral sound builds to an almost unbearable cacophony, an overwhelming brilliance. It is immense and terrifying.
Out of this wondrous noise speaks Prince Shuisky, immediately establishing his position as the opera’s arch manipulator. He leads the people into a triumphant, C-major hymn in praise of Boris. In this opera filled with communal song, this is one of the few places where Musorgsky uses a pre-existing, ‘genuine’ folk melody – music truly of the people. And yet we know from the opera’s opening scene, where the uncomprehending people were ordered to pray for Boris, that this celebratory outpouring is the product of oppression.
The music of Boris’s monologue contrasts starkly with the folkish simplicity of the people’s song. Musorgsky writes a highly nuanced, text-led setting of the Pushkin on which the libretto is based. The setting is full of unusual intervals and rhythms, to match Russian speech more closely. It has the direct expressive power of spoken text, heightened through musical setting.
The three distinct sections of Boris’s monologue are presented as a continuous whole. This casts doubt on its purpose. Are Boris’s spoken worries meant as an internal aside, or are they heard by the people? Are we seeing controlled humility or uncontrollable weakness?
By the time Boris and his retinue have processed on and the last note of the great bells fade away, Musorgsky has shown us a fractured society and a fractured mind. The Coronation Scene contains the kernel of all that will lead to Boris’s downfall – Musorgsky will even reference the coronation bells in Boris’s death scene.
And yet the Coronation Scene has not always been admired. When Rimsky-Korsakov made it his labour of love to revise Boris Godunov to make it palatable to his contemporaries, he started with the Coronation Scene. Shostakovich later did the same. They both felt that Musorgsky’s inexperience as an orchestrator impeded the power of his music, that what he wrote could not have been what he intended. Performances of Musorgsky’s original version, as in The Royal Opera’s new production, allow us to hear those first thoughts from this musical genius and decide for ourselves.
Boris Godunov runs 14 March–5 April 2016. Tickets are still available.
The production is a co-production with Deutsche Oper Berlin and is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, The Tsukanov Family Foundation, Simon and Virginia Robertson, The Mikheev Charitable Trust, the Boris Godunov Production Syndicate and an anonymous donor.
The production will be relayed live to cinemas around the world on 21 March 2016. Find your nearest cinema and sign up to our mailing list.