Wednesday, April 25, 2012

800 Words: In Search of Boris Godunov - Before the Prologue

Overture (technically there is none):

Late January, 2005. I’m a college senior. In August of the year before, I spent an absolute fortune (sixty-five dollars!) to see the Mariinsky Opera perform Boris Godunov on tour at the Kennedy Center in a production conducted by Valery Gergiev. I have been looking forward to this all year – even if I knew it would be a cold day in hell before I could get anyone to go with me. Getting anyone to come with me to the Kennedy Center is enough of a pill, but for sixty five dollars, I might as well tell them their money would be siphoned to Jack Abramoff (remember him?).

A week beforehand, I get a surprise IM from Il Giovine. He is about to leave for eight months in Australia, but before he leaves, he wants to come down to DC with some friends of his from New Jersey, and our pledge to enable our corner apartment in Connecticut Heights to put on one last legendary party before he leaves. Against some resistance, I insist the party has to be Friday night so that I can go to the opera Saturday. I’ve looked forward to that night for too long to have any conflicting plans.

Il Giovine comes down Thursday night with a number of friends who have since become my friends, and the plans are firmly in place. The party is, true to form, as legendary as any college party thrown by cripplingly awkward nerds can be. Fifty-odd guests crammed into our tiny corner apartment, no noise complaints, and some hilariously wrong hookup stories. Three hours after the last guests leave, two hours after Der Schreiber and our houseguests have fallen asleep, Il Giovine and I are still drinking Sambuca at ten in the morning.

I awaken at three-thirty in a sweaty frenzy and make a beeline for the toilet. The results are precisely the color of that Sambuca, and even afterward I feel like microwaved death. I have four hours to get to the opera, and am in no humor to either walk to the Van Ness metro station or to the Kennedy Center from the Foggy Bottom station. I have no appetite for food and I make a plea to Il Giovine to drive me to the Kennedy Center, but he’s as hung over as I and has dinner plans. “Come to dinner!” he says, “You know I can’t.” I reply. I call Le Malon to ask him for a ride to the Kennedy Center, but he too has other plans. He, Il DeAngelo, and The Kanneth, having recouperated the night before at Le Malon’s apartment, are about to leave for a spontaneous roadtrip to Leesburg, Virginia. “Come with us!”, they entreat. “I wish I could,” I reply. “Can you wait an hour and take me to the Kennedy Center?” They oblige me, and when I suggest they see about getting tickets, they even oblige that, only to find that all the remaining seats are over $250.

At seven-twenty, I am in my seat, breathlessly waiting for the beginning of this performance I’ve anticipated so devotionally. The man in the seat next to me starts to talk to me, he’s an operaphile too who is quite happy to make the acquaintance of a fellow Mussorgsky-lover. “You realize it’s the 1869 Boris Godunov, right?....”

“Oh shit…” I think to myself.

“…So there’s no intermission.”

“No, I hadn’t realized that.”

The lights grow dim, and the tonsured visage of Gergiev can be seen, already mounted on the pit’s rostrum. The plaintive C-Sharp Minor bassoon solo is the last thing I remember…
140 minutes later, I awaken to a tumultuous, deafening ovation. The man next to me turns and exclaims…

“Wasn’t that the most incredible performance you’ve ever seen?”


The Performer:

The Golovanov Boris Godunov is a travesty of a travesty. Nikolai Golovanov inserts hundreds of unwritten changes in dynamics, tempo, and instrumentation into what already is a bastardization of Mussorgsky’s original opera – in which Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov changes the orchestration, rearranges the harmonies, and sometimes rewrites whole scenes. This recording has all sorts of playing and singing that is shaky, shrill, imprecise, and out of tune. Yet this 1947 recording is one of the absolute cultural glories of the 20th century – the only recorded performance that does Mussorgsky’s vision true justice and coming as close as any document ever has to explaining the Russian Soul to those of us fortunate enough not to understand it.

It was 1947, 27 million Russians had died in The Great Patriotic War (World War II) in addition to the 10-20 million Stalin had already killed without Hitler’s help. By the end of the year, Stalin would begin his purges anew, and still more millions would be fed to Stalin’s meat grinder. And if that weren’t enough, the Soviet people already lived every day under the threat of nuclear attacks from America, a future only made more likely by Stalin’s announcement in that year that the Soviets too had built an atomic bomb.

By the early 1940’s, all the great Soviet writers and painters were either dead, imprisoned, or in internal exile. All that was left to Russia was its music, and through the work of composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev spoke all the sentiments which no person in the regime dare say out loud. The freedom of musicians was limited, but compared to the scores of other artists killed for speaking their minds, their freedom was limitless. No Soviet bureaucrat could accuse a piece of music of being about Soviet oppression simply because it’s written in a minor key, or sounds angry. The Soviet authorities used to append meanings to the music of their greatest composers that were commensurate with what they wanted to hear. But the Russian people got very different messages.

If you ask most culturally aware Americans to name the great Russian performing organizations, they’ll know only one answer: The Bolshoi. That answer is over twenty years dated, and they probably think it’s only a ballet company, and not a 236 year old theater company with a 180 year old theater that produces ballet and opera. They won’t know that the Bolshoi is a mere nub of its Soviet self, while its historic rival, the Kirov/Mariinsky, has been fully restored to its pre-Soviet glory. They might have heard of one or two of their dancers: Barishnikov and Nuryev of course – but the names of singers like Chaliapin, Vishnevskaya, Reizen, Kozlovsky, would draw complete blanks. If they’re classical music lovers, they may have heard of the Mariinsky’s current, and perhaps greatest, director, Valery Gergiev. But they won’t know the name of the Bolshoi’s greatest modern director, Nikolai Golovanov.

It’s an unfortunate fact of classical music that even the very greatest musicians are only at their very greatest in a small sliver of their repertoire. Just as the greatest theater actors have roles they do less well, no musician, however extraordinary, can be so authoritative that (s)he can have equal ability in their entire repertoire. Pavarotti could do extraordinary things in Italian roles for lyric tenors, but was rather incompetent outside his specialty. Vladimir Horowitz was a super-virtuoso who made audiences believe that Liszt, Rachmaninov, and Scriabin wrote their piano music specially for him, yet in more self-effacing composers like Beethoven and Brahms, all his hair-raising effects sounded hopelessly narcissistic – though he was trying to put the focus back on himself.

Even to fanatical classical music lovers, Nikolai Golovanov is a conductor not much known today – it’s a shame, since even when his recordings suck, they are fascinating. Most recreative musicians are complacent and simply produce a rough approximation of what the composer writes on the page, and they disguise their intellectual laziness with technique good enough to cover up their flaws. They give little thought to why they do what they do, and they’re not artists, they’re merely artisans. But a greater class of musician knows better than to stop at the water’s edge. When a talented artist gives a unique performance,  many have negative reactions to them, some even feel threatened – as though their precious preconceptions will be shattered forever and no one can put them back together. But no one can possibly find such artists bland. Nikolai Golovanov is this higher class of artist to the n’th degree.

I can think of at least three times as many performances conducted by Golovanov that are weird beyond description than I can of his performances that I treasure. Few conductors would have the nerve (let alone the stupidity) to conduct a Mozart Requiem in which some movements (though not all) are in the wrong key, and the tempos usually change from bar to bar. Yet from a musician that unique, there is always something to be learned – even if it’s something we don’t want to.

If an artist as challenging as Golovanov were in any line of work but music, he’d have wilted. But Golovanov was the most original conductor in a time and place in which music was virtually the soul’s only outlet, and he was feted accordingly – four-time recipient of the Stalin Prize, director of Orchestral and Operatic activities at the Moscow Conservatory for 23 years, 8 years as conductor of the Bolshoi Theater’s radio orchestra, 16 years as conductor of the USSR’s state-sponsored radio orchestra. And finally in 1948, at the age of 57, he reached  the very top of his profession - he became music director of the Bolshoi.

Golovanov made this recording in the year before he became the Bolshoi’s director, but the problems which proved his undoing are already there in this album. This recorded performance has two editions, one starring the bass, Alexander Pirogov, in the titular role of Boris Godunov – the third Czar of All Russia. The other starred Mark Reizen in the same role. Golovanov preferred Reizen as Boris, but Reizen was Jewish, and Stalin preferred Pirogov.

One would think that the Generalissimus of the Soviet Union would have better things with which to concern himself. But according to the autobiography of one famous singer, the battle of the Borises was waged all throughout Golovanov’s five-year tenure. Every time Boris Godunov was performed, there was a tense question as to whom would assume the title role. Eventually, the Kremlin tired of this contest of wills, and in 1952, Golovanov was barred from the very premises of the Bolshoi. By the next year, he was dead, and according to the same autobiography, he simply died of humiliation.

Had he lived just six months longer, Golovanov would have outlived Stalin and would likely have been completely rehabilitated. But like Boris Godunov, like Mussorgsky, perhaps like Russia itself, Golovanov was the victim of terrible luck – and we can only speculate as to the glories that might have been had history taken a completely different turn. 

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