Monday, November 3, 2008

Making Sense of Russian History and American Politics

The lead item in today's Date Lines column in the San Francisco Chronicle is an interesting bit of opera news reported by Music Critic Joshua Kosman:

Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" probes deeply into the philosophy and ethics of politics, but perhaps not specifically enough for the audience members at Tuesday night's performance at the San Francisco Opera.
For patrons eager to hear the latest election updates without keeping a portable radio plugged into their ears, the company will keep eight high-definition video screens tuned to live TV coverage of the election - before the curtain goes up and at intermission, not during the performance.

While I seldom seem to agree with Kosman's evaluations, his description of Modest Mussorgsky's opera in terms of "the philosophy and ethics of politics" may well be the best way to introduce this opera to those unfamiliar with it. It also appeals to my own vanity in terms of my summary of the current Opera season in terms of "a seminar in an undergraduate humanities program." From an American point of view, it may have seemed more appropriate to perform Giuseppe Verdi's Simon Boccanegra (which I had described as "A Tragedy of Republic") on Election Day, particularly in light of its opening scene, which is basically about using money to get the election results you want; but Boris is not so much about a particular tsar or even the winning and losing of a royal throne as it is about the general public of a very large nation in very hard times.

Yesterday I cited Mussorgsky as one of the Russian "nationalists;" and he may well be the most politicized of the composers I included in the list I drew up based on an entry in The Oxford Dictionary of Music. Boris is one of two operas he wrote on the underlying theme of the relationship between government and the governed, the other being Khovanshchina. (It is also interesting to note that, according to his Wikipedia entry, between the ages of 19 and 22 he worked on (and subsequently abandoned) an opera about Oedipus; so it could well have been Sophocles who got him interested in this theme in the first place.) Thus, while we can approach most operas strictly on the basis of what the libretto chooses to tell us, where Boris is concerned, we can really benefit from political perspective on some Russian history that most of us probably do not know.

A good approach to historical background is provided in the Wikipedia entry for the Boris Godunov play by Alexander Pushkin, which is the primary source for Mussorgsky's libretto (written by Mussorgsky himself):

An understanding of the drama of Boris Godunov may be facilitated by a basic knowledge of the historical events surrounding the Time of Troubles, the interregnum period of relative anarchy following the end of the Ryurik Dynasty (1598) and preceding the Romanov Dynasty (1613). Key events are as follows:

Note: The culpability of Boris in the matter of Dmitriy's death can neither be proved nor disproved. Karamzin, the historian to whom the drama is dedicated, accepted it as fact, and Pushkin assumed it to be true, at least for the purpose of creating a tragedy in the mold of Shakespeare. Modern historians, however, tend to acquit Boris of the crime.

Several points are in order by way of response to this summary. Most important is the reinforcement of a remark I already made: This opera is less about Boris himself than it is about the Russian people during the Time of Troubles. I also think the suggestion that Pushkin had Shakespeare in mind while working on this play is an appropriate one. Boris himself has traits suggesting of both Henry IV ("Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.") and Richard III (refusing the crown while at prayer), both of whom assumed the throne through regicide. For that matter Boris' refusal of the crown also links him to Julius Caesar (although Shakespeare does not dwell on the murder of Pompey), which is also worth citing for the "crowd control" scenes, in which the Roman tribunes have been replaced by Russian police officers. Then, as a final bit of spice, we have the vagabond monk Varlaam, who does not figure in the above chronology but in the dramatic framework can make a firm claim to John Falstaff as an ancestor.

This brings us to the matter of the full title that Pushkin gave to his play: A Dramatic Tale, The Comedy of the Distress of the Muscovite State, of Tsar Boris, and of Grishka Otrepyev. Presumably Pushkin knew his Aristotle, particularly the argument in "Poetics" concerning the principle that tragedy is concerned with noble men, while comedy "is an imitation of baser men." As I had tried to argue in examining Simon Boccanegra, nobility is not necessarily a matter of whether one is patrician or plebian, the basis for the fundamental αγών of Verdi's opera; and Pushkin's choice of title may serve to indicate that each of the key characters in his play is base in his or her own way (to paraphrase a later Russian novelist). Thus, the Russian people themselves are about as true as you can get to the invective of Murellus in Act I, Scene I of Julius Caesar: "You blocks, you stones, your worse than senseless things!" These "huddled masses" are not only illiterate but generally weak at understanding what they experience, making up farcical explanations grounded in imaginative flights of fancy. Grigory (Grishka) is not much better, while the political elite (the Duma, their Secretary Shchelkalov, and the manipulative Prince Shuisky) place personal gain above all other priorities, even when the rest of the country is starving from a massive famine. This leaves Boris himself, chosen by a unanimous mandate by that political elite and possibly even well-intentioned, but still a reminder that a crown does not automatically make a man noble, just as Simon Boccanegra reminds us that a buccaneer is not necessarily base.

Pushkin's play is in 24 scenes, mostly in blank verse, which makes for a rather massive script. Mussorgsky's original libretto selected seven of these scenes, which, according to Pushkin's numbering, are 3, 4, 5, 8, 10, 23, and 24. Whatever continuity Pushkin may have originally conceived has been seriously disrupted, but this does not really disrupt the continuity of the resulting opera. If Pushkin used the flow of history to establish continuity, Mussorgsky turned instead to the rhetoric of Russian folk music to integrate his seven scenes. Thus, even if these folk are as "worse than senseless" as Pushkin's comic perspective made them out to be, through their music they are elevated above those whose base qualities are grounded in their political behavior. This is not to say that Mussorgsky's approach ennobles the Russian people; but it reminds us that, while Pushkin may have taken a comic approach to a dysfunctional relationship between government and governed, Mussorgsky took that relationship to be serious stuff.

This brings up another literary connection. One of the things I enjoyed most in my freshman year was the opportunity to read the original text of the comédie Le Mariage de Figaro (in French) by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. The second act of this play has a monologue for Figaro that was considerably toned down by Lorenzo da Ponte, when he prepared the libretto for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 492 operatic treatment of the work. My professor paid particular attention to the original Beaumarchais text, remarking that, if one listened carefully to the words, one could hear the first sounds of the guillotine during the subsequent Reign of Terror. In a similar way Mussorgsky's music, if not Pushkin's actual text, foreshadows both the Russian uprising of 1905 and its brutal suppression.

This closes the circle on tomorrow night's performance after the polls have closed. Our own "Time of Troubles" may not be on the temporal scale of the one experienced in seventeenth-century Russia; but its geographical scale extends far beyond our own borders. Thus, tomorrow's election is being watched around the world with a level of attention that no preceding election has received, not only because of the extended scope of news media but also because, like it or not, the entire world will experience the consequences of the results. When it comes to that dysfunctional relationship between government and governed, our sympathies lie more with the serious, if not revolutionary, perspective of Mussorgsky's music than with the comic foundations of Pushkin's text. Were our culture not so willfully ignorant of history, we might benefit from an appreciation of this particular operatic portrayal of a people situated in their own "Time of Troubles." It might not change the way in which we vote, but it might help shape the attitude with which we face the next Administration, whoever the next occupant of the White House may be.

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