Perhaps no opera better reflects the questions and contradictions at the heart of Russian history than Modest Mussorgsky’s historical epic Boris Godunov. Based on the play by Alexander Pushkin (considered by many to be one of Russia’s greatest writers), it’s a meditation on power and legitimacy, and a portrayal of a pivotal period in Russian history -- The Time of Troubles.
When Tsar Ivan the Terrible dies without an heir, Boris Godunov is elected tsar, casting doubt on his legitimacy. He rules well for a few years, but then all hell breaks loose, with a famine, a revolt, and a pretender claiming to be the real tsar.
As his country’s problems compound, Boris confronts his feelings of powerlessness in the monologue, “Dostig ja vïsshei vlasti.” Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the nature of power, the question of legitimacy, and how an opera can shine a light on a nation’s past as well as its present.
Bass René Pape (A.K.A. “The Black Diamond Bass”) has been singing the role of Boris Godunov for 15 years. Like many of the kings and rulers he’s played on stage, he sees Boris as someone who has all of the power but none of the joy. In addition to his velvety voice, Pape is also known for his collection of rubber ducks, and even has one in his own image, the PapeDuck.
Dr. Simon Morrison is a professor of music history at Princeton, specializing in Russian and Soviet music. He fell in love with Russian music when he was an undergraduate and wrote his dissertation on the life and work of Sergei Prokofiev. His most recent book is Bolshoi Confidential, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and he is currently writing a book on the history of the city of Moscow, which finds him studying 11th century documents written on birchbark.
Dr. Shoshana Keller is a professor of Russian, Soviet, Eurasian, and modern Middle Eastern history at Hamilton College. She first became interested in Russia after getting to know the music of Shostakovich and Stravinsky while playing French horn as a kid, and she was fascinated by pictures of Russian onion domes in a social studies class. She loved the Russian language too, but found the grammar devilishly difficult and immersed herself in its history. She has written multiple books, and is working on an experimental mapping project of the nations in Kazakhstan
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