Modest Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" is the greatest opera ever written, if we don't count Wagner's Ring. Vera Stroyeva's 1954 film of Boris is a stunning account of this stunning work - or it would be if we could get all of it. Despite Amazon's editorial review's assertion that "this is the most complete Boris Godunov ever recorded on film", we're missing over 40% of the opera here. Boris runs about 3 hours. There are 2 versions of the Stroyeva film on DVD, each running about 1 hour, 49 minutes. You do the math.
This is basically the Rimsky-Korsakov botch job, in which Mussorgsky's story is run right off-track by shuffling events and scenes. That would be bad enough, but compensated for by brilliant performances. However, the botch is here followed by the axe. The end of the Prologue (part 1) is chopped off, losing the ending chorus. Act III is butchered terribly, to the point where the viewer might wonder: who's that guy in red robes lurking in the background? In Act V. half of Scene 2 (Mussorgsky's original Scene 3)seems to have disappeared. In Scene 3 (Mussorgsky's original Scene 2) the weakness of Rimsky's rewrite is usually made manifest by becoming the opera's end. In Mussorgsky's mind, Boris was only supporting actor, and the protagonist was (or were) the Russian people. This is why the opera is supposed to end, not with Boris's death, but with the scene in the Kromy forest and the Fool's lament. Amazingly, that is the way it ends after all. After Boris's death - the scene's last few moments are cut - the film goes back to the Kromy forest in what I guess we must call Scene 4. The False Dimitriy appears, the Simpleton bewails the fate of the Russian people, and the opera ends. The split of the Kromy forest scene is disorienting, a sort of compromise between Mussorgsky's intention and Rimsky's meddling, but at least we can more clearly understand the opera's meaning.
What saves this truncated performance is the magnificence of the remains. The orchestra plays with true Slavic verve (not well served by the spotty sound reproduction). The sets appear to be actual locations within Russia, within Moscow even, and the Kromy forest parts are filmed outdoors with a realistic burning city in "Scene 4" of Act V. The cameras take full advantage of the fact that the sets are real Russian buildings, with wonderful filming angles. The lighting is imaginative. The influence of Eisenstein hangs wonderfully and heavily over this production.
The cast is nothing short of miraculous. Aleksandr Pirogi's Boris is stunning: full of passion and humanity (and guilt). The man reduces the scenery to splinters.
The small but pivotal role of Prince Shuisky lives in N. Khanayev. Through much of Russian history, if there's plotting and villainy afoot, there's a Shuisky at the bottom of it. Ivan IV Grozniy fed a couple of them to his dogs, but that wasn't enough apparently. Khanayev fairly radiates nastiness - he steals scenes without even singing. His sly and malevolent glances provide a complete subtext to events. The man is fabulous.
Grigoriy Otropiev, the False Dmitriy (unless he actually was Prince Dmitriy), is played by G, Nellep. Nellep has a ringing Slavic tenor - a heldentenor mellowed by more than a soupcon of Alfredo Kraus. He might be regarded as a bit pudgy for the role, but his performance is so compelling that he quickly looks every inch the part.
A. Krivchanye shines as the venal and cunning Varlaam, a renegade priest who plays both roles superlatively. This is an opera crammed with baritone and bass voices, and Krivchanye is equal to the best of the others.
The Simpleton is portrayed by I. Koslovsky. He has only 2 bits, but they are (like Shuiski's) central to the story and our understanding of it. If you're puzzled by Boris's lack of anger at the Simpleton's spot-on accusations, simpletons or fools are "touched" - and expression we use, which means "touched by god". They were held sacred in Old Russia - just as Court fools in western Europe could go unpunished by saying anything to the King. Koslovsky gives the role a passionate sadness more touching than any dying soprano.
Marina Mnishek is played with wonderful cunning and coquetry by L. Avdeyevna. Aside from great acting and looking the part spot-on, Avdeyevna's voice flows like melted butter and her beauty would launch a thousand ships - warships only.
Remember, at the end, Russians know that the Time of Troubles is well under way. Boris's son, the last of the Rurikids, is quickly assassinated, and "Dmitriy" is crowned in Moscow. He rules well but is challenged by a great flaw: he (or his Jesuit advisors) tries to Catholicize Russia. It's not long before "Dmitriy" is himself assassinated and the country dissolves in civil war. Polish and Swedish forces contend with Russians and each other to secure the throne for this or that candidate. After a few years the Troubles end when Mikhail Romanov becomes Tsar. He and his heirs are the implacable foes of Poland, which is ultimately absorbed in pieces by Russia, Prussia, and Austria.
What a pity this tremendous production of a very great opera has such poor sound and is so badly cut. Even so, sound and awful editing and all, this is at least a 4-star product.