19 October 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Mussorgsky: “Boris Godunov”

Modest Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” is the only Russian opera that Karajan conducted in its entirety.

As a pioneer in performing and recording operas in their original language he managed to assemble a cast that was able to sing Russian, although in some performances there was only one actual Russian singer. Karajan’s encounter with the opera – in the Rimsky-Korsakov version – centred on the years 1965 to 1970, with a “prelude” in 1949 when he recorded the “drinking song” with Boris Christoff in London. Watch Karajan rehearsing this scene with Anton Diakov.

Boris Godunov was tsar of Russia between 1598 and 1605. The circumstances of his empowerment were suspicious, as one son of his predecessor was murdered at the age of ten and another son – physically and mentally unable to reign – was controlled by Boris. Boris’ life was dramatised by Pushkin in 1825 and adapted for a libretto by Modest Mussorgsky in 1870/72. Different versions of the opera existed after Mussorgsky’s death in 1881 but this did not prevent it from finding its way into the Russian and international repertoire.

In July 1965, Karajan presented his stage production for the first time in Salzburg, “a show that even Reinhardt might have blenched at. […] Scenically, it was a triumph. (Richard Osborne)” Andrew Porter reported in the Financial Times:

“The frontier inn, complete except for its fourth wall, was built to life scale, with the road winding past it, an outbuilding, and land stretching all around… Boris’s study was realistic and so was the huge moonlit garden of Sandomir, with palace wings stretching down both sides, and paths and terraces and bridges so broad there was no need to free any special dancing area. The Kromy clearing, however, was a bare stage, with cunning entrances on many levels that allowed a surging mob to fill or leave in a few moments.”

The production was repeated in the next two Salzburg seasons. In 1970, Karajan recorded the opera with an ensemble that assembled members of the stage cast with newly engaged singers.

“The sables-and-diamonds sound of Karajan’s Salzburg ‘Cinemascope Spectacular’ is undeniably seductive.”
David Hamilton

Obviously, it was a performance of “Boris Godunov” that inspired Karajan to found the Salzburg Easter Festival in 1967. He told his biographer Franz Endler:

“The genesis of the Easter Festival has been recounted over and over again. […] There was an evening at the Salzburg Festival. I was conducting “Boris Godunov” and in the short interval right before the great scene with the chorus I was standing at my desk and suddenly I knew that I should organize the Easter Festival in this hall with these artists. I thought, everything you need is already there.”

Karajan’s original score for his Salzburg “Boris Godunov” production is archived at the Karajan Institute. Mariss Jansons, one of the great conductors of our time, planned to use it (including the cuts) at the Salzburg festival in 2020.

Jansons began his studies with Karajan in 1969 and his career in western Europe took off when he became one of the winners of the Herbert von Karajan Conductors Competition in 1971.

Immediately after Jansons’ death on 1 December 2019, Salzburger Nachrichten wrote: “He was happy as a child when […] he drove to the Karajan Institute to study his great idol’s original score of ‘Boris Godunov’. Jansons was to have conducted the momentous work at the Salzburg Festival 2020. His heart’s desire remained unfulfilled.”

“Before any rehearsal a conductor must have within his imagination his ‘sound model’ which is then compared with that of the orchestra. Mravinsky had that awareness in the highest degree, as did Karajan. Often in rehearsal Karajan didn’t conduct. The art was to make the orchestra listen to itself. Critics sniped but, for musicians, what he did bordered on the miraculous.”

Mariss Jansons

Mariss Jansons and Matthias Röder, CEO of the Karajan Institute, in 2019



Financial Times, 25 August 1965

Richard Osborne: “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

David Hamilton, Opera on Record, ed. Alan Blyth, London. 1979

Franz Endler: “Karajan. Eine Biographie” Hoffmann & Campe, Hamburg. 1992

Stay Informed