The Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov: Opera’s Biggest Spectacle?

Boris Godunov
Tsar Boris Godunov

From its origins in medieval and Renaissance courtly entertainment, opera has always been partly rooted in spectacle. Nineteenth century French grand opera used large casts, expanded orchestras, grandiose scenery, consumes and special effects, and ballet to bring to life epic heroic tales based on historical subjects. (Meyerbeer’s five-act Les Huguenots from 1836 is an example.) A sense of theatricality and spectacle is at the heart of the Triumphant March from Verdi’s Aida, set in ancient Egypt.

History (this time recent) became mythologized in a similar way in John Adams’ 1987 opera, Nixon in China. Early in the first act, the landing of Nixon’s Air Force 1, dubbed the Spirit of ’76, and the appearance of the president and his entourage, take on Wagnerian weight. In Adams’ music, we can hear the plane emerge as a dot on the horizon and approach with an awe-inspiring crescendo, culminating in a heroic landing. The aircraft’s throbbing engines become as poetically powerful and significant as Lohengrin‘s swan. Spectacle takes center stage, literally, as the nose of the Spirit of ’76 suddenly engulfs the entire set.

But when it comes to the ultimate musical and dramatic fireworks, I can’t think of any moment in opera that tops the Coronation Scene from Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, composed between 1868 and 1873. (If you can find an opera scene that pulls out more stops, please share it in the thread below.) As with the arrival of the Spirit of ’76 in Nixon in China, the Coronation Scene occurs early in Boris Godunov (the second scene of the Prologue). Both dramatic events are heightened by a powerful sense of anticipation. A crowd waits for Tsar Boris to appear from Moscow’s Cathedral of the Dormition and then sings his praises.

Suddenly, amid this celebratory spectacle, we’re drawn into the intimacy of Boris’ monologue. We enter the mind of the character and catch a glimpse of the darkness and tragedy ahead. A similar moment of contemplation occurs in Nixon in China as Nixon daydreams about public perception and his place in history. 

  • Find a recording of Boris Godunov at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Here is the complete synopsis of the opera.
  • Valery Gergiev’s performance of the Coronation Scene.
  • a 1947 historic performance from Moscow’s Bolshoy Theater

Rita Shane Sings The Queen of the Night

dramatic coloratura soprano Rita Shane (1940-2014)
dramatic coloratura soprano Rita Shane (1936-2014)

Dramatic coloratura soprano Rita Shane passed away last thursday at the age of 78. Following her 1973 Metropolitan Opera debut as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, she appeared regularly at the Met in a total of 71 productions. In 1989, Shane joined the faculty of the Eastman School of Music.

You can get a sense of Rita Shane’s brilliance and extensive vocal range in these short excerpts: Ah! Si j’étais coquette (“Ah! if I were flirtatious”) from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn (“Tremble not, my dear son”) from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

The most famous example from The Magic Flute is the “Vengeance Aria” from Act II. The enraged Queen of the Night gives her daughter a knife and implores her to kill Sarastro (Read the synopsis and hear more music from the opera here). Shane brings more than technique to this gruesome aria (below). She captures the ferocious passion of the character.

The role of the Queen of the Night was first performed by Mozart’s sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer, who was known for her wide vocal range. The aria’s high “F” (above high “C”) reaches nearly the upper limit of a soprano’s range.

Here is a translation of the libretto:

Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart;
Death and despair blaze around me!
If Sarastro does not feel the pain of death because of you,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.

Disowned be forever,
Forsaken be forever,
Shattered be forever
All the bonds of nature
If Sarastro does not turn pale [in death] because of you!
Hear, hear, hear, gods of vengeance, hear the mother’s oath!