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Summer Opera: Mattheson's Boris Goudenow

Johann Mattheson, Boris Goudenow, Boston Early Music Festival, June 2005Lesser-known German composer Johann Mattheson created an opera on the story of Boris Godunov in 1710, long before Mussorgsky's stellar and justifiably more famous version became part of the Russian repertory. Richard Taruskin gave some excellent background on the story of this lost opera, in an article (Richard Taruskin, Enter Boris Goudenow, Just 295 Years Late, June 12) in the New York Times. You may not think of northern Germany as a hotbed of early opera, but Mattheson worked in Hamburg's "Goosemarket" opera house, from 1696 to 1711, and that theater (where Mattheson famously fought a duel with the young Handel over the right to play continuo) was the first public opera house opened in Europe outside of Venice. He composed six operas for Hamburg (Boris was never performed there, or anywhere, until this summer), and the scores were all thought to have deposited in the Hamburg municipal library, which burned to the ground during World War II.

Then the Soviet Union opened up to musicologists in the 1990s, and it turned out that the Mattheson materials had been taken from the library and stored in a castle. The Soviet Army had taken control of the castle and made off with all of the precious books. To our delight, the Mattheson collection turned up in Armenia. The score was transcribed and edited (Drudgery That Requires No Imaginative Power, May 21) and then staged at this summer's Boston Early Music Festival, which was then taken for two performances, June 24 and 25, to the Tanglewood Festival. Taruskin's article also gives a nice account of how the libretto differs from the story we know in Mussorgsky's opera:

Mattheson's chief source for the story seems to have been "Stories and Report of the Grand Duchy of Muschow" by the Swedish traveler Petrus Petrejus, which was published in Leipzig in 1620, when Sweden and Russia were bitter enemies. You can imagine how events in "Muschow" were portrayed there. But Mattheson, who wrote his own libretto, took little from actual history, and what little he took he (or Petrejus) often got wrong.

Mattheson's title character is not a usurper, merely a good politician on the Machiavellian model. ("He who wants to reign happily," an aria reminds us, "must practice deceit.") There is no talk of the rampant suspicions that fueled Mussorgsky's opera, namely that Boris had cleared his way to the throne by ordering the murder of the rightful heir, the boy prince Dmitri, Ivan the Terrible's youngest child. Dmitri is mentioned just once, when Boris's weary predecessor Theodorus (that is, Czar Feodor I, who never appears in Mussorgsky's work) says he would like to join his poor son in heaven. (The real Feodor, also a son of Ivan the Terrible, would have said his brother.) There are no Pretender, no crazy scenes, no death of Boris. Mattheson ends the story just where Mussorgsky's begins, in fact, with Boris's coronation.
Richard Dyer reviewed the Boston premiere ('Boris' weaves an enjoyable web, June 16) for the Boston Globe:
An exotic and irrational entertainment, Johann Mattheson's "Boris Goudenow" may not be a great opera, but it offers more than three hours of delightful music, and that's plenty good enough. [...] His music may not transcend its time and place to probe the human condition the way Handel's does, but it is continuously pretty, inventive, and charming. His dance rhythms are perky, and he can put together an ensemble; best of all, his melodies have an irresistibly sensuous Italianate curve to them, and they linger in the memory. One number, the death aria of the old Czar, does arrive at pathos, at least when the violin obbligato is delivered as meaningfully as concertmaster Robert Mealy did Tuesday night at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
Heidi Waleson also reviewed the Boston premiere (Different Right Down to the Spelling - Boris Goudenow, June 20) for
The best things about the production were David Cockayne's splendid period-style set, which cleverly used painted drops and a false proscenium to create the many different settings and spaces for intimate or large chorus activities, and Anna Watkins's sumptuous Russian-style costumes. Both were beautifully and subtly lit by Lenore Doxsee to create an air of almost candle-lit richness. Act II featured a hilarious choreography scene (by Lucy Graham) in which doddering old men and children begged Boris to return from his monastic exile in the steppes. [...] The wonderful 31-member orchestra, led by violinist Robert Mealy, was the star of the show, with strings and winds alternating with the splendid continuo group. However, this opera could probably have used a conductor. For the big scenes, music directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs put down their lutes and Baroque guitars and stood up to conduct, but the music of this opera needed more variety in tempo, inflection and direction than that method afforded.
This is not the end for Mattheson's opera. There are plans to stage it in Russia this fall, on September 14 and 15, in Moscow, and on September 18 and 19, at the Hermitage Museum Theatre in St. Petersburg.

See also John Wall's review of the Boston performance (, June 20).

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