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Tsar Boris hallucinated like Verdi’s Macbeth

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Tsar Boris hallucinated like Verdi’s Macbeth

Boris Godunov is a profoundly Scaliger title. Thanks to an intuition of Toscanini, who wanted it in 1909 and directed it for five seasons in over thirty performances from 1922. Of the twenty-six La Scala productions of the Boris I would like to recall Ljubimov’s show with Nicolai Ghiaurov directed by Claudio Abbado, which opened the season for the first time in 1979: a show I know well since I had been Abbado’s assistant. So this is, over forty years later, the second inauguration with the Boris, moreover fully in line with that of last season. There is in fact a profound relationship between the Boris and the Macbeth by Verdi, the second version of which was staged a few years before Boris. One might even wonder if Musorgsky didn’t write his masterpiece with the Macbeth.

The staging that we will propose presents two peculiarities on the musical level: the choice of the first version of the work, theUr-Boris, more violent and springy, and, an absolute novelty for La Scala, the proposal of the critical edition edited by Evgenij Levašev. Musicological research has returned 23 bars of music never heard before, between the coronation scene, the awakening and above all Grigorij’s dream. It’s details, but it’s bold music, which sometimes seems written by Berg.

Beyond these unpublished passages, I think the gamble, the scathing modernity of a score from 1869 that still today demonstrates a freshness, abrasiveness and provocation that continues to amaze will surprise the viewer. It is no coincidence that it was rejected by the commission of the imperial theaters in charge of programming. And it is no coincidence that Rimsky-Korsakov’s revision has softened, made more euphonious, especially in the harmony, a music contrary to classical canons.

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In these days of rehearsals, I perceive the emotion of the impact of such a masterpiece on stage every day in the performers, in the orchestra and in the choir, if proposed by an excellent cast such as the one we fortunately have available. I said, a “provocative” orchestra. Musorgsky never misses an opportunity to highlight the meaning of the text, to enhance it with an almost expressionistic taste. Only the seventh and last scene of the opera (which is in a compact format, just a couple of hours, compared to the version that Musorgsky will prepare later) is studded with extraordinary moments: for example, to express hatred for the false Dimitri, the music chromatically mimics an insidious snake and translates the popular hatred into the obsessive very strong some instruments on the forbidden tritone interval; on the other hand a lullaby of the flutes on the muted strings evokes the celestial spheres, while in the finale, when the dying Boris invites forgiveness, a theme that we could call “of redemption” hovers, possible only at the edge of death. For this moment, in some respects the apex of the work, I paid particular attention to the timpani roll which slowly fades away, a very poetic stroke of genius which I will prolong with a crown towards infinity.

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Il Boris offers a great variety of accents and atmospheres. Let us think of the scene in the inn, which pierces the overall dark tint of the drama. Rhythm and tone of the comedy come into play, Musorgsky wants to cause the viewer to smile, after the grim tale of death from the first scene. Let’s think of the part of the Hostess, who, with the other female parts, contrasts with the many virile voices. But also to the couple Varlaam-Misail, which cannot fail to make one think of Bardolfo and Pistola del Falstaff, and who knows if Verdi himself thought about it. Among other things, Musorgsky entrusts Varlaam with the only authentic popular melody of the work: the others – except for the hymnodic melody of the coronation scene, already known from the eighteenth century – are original, reworked by Musorgsky, standard bearer of that peaceful nationalism interested to the rediscovery of one’s own cultural roots, on the model of will lie glory.

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