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

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and JulietShakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has inspired composers from Berlioz to Prokofiev to David Diamond. One of this timeless tragedy’s most popular musical depictions was composed by the 28-year-old Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). Tchaikovsky called the work an Overture-Fantasy, but it can also be considered a tone poem.

Let’s listen to a live performance with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. Consider how Tchaikovsky’s music captures the deep emotions at the heart of the story. We hear the character of noble Friar Laurence in the stately Russian Orthodox chorale in the opening. Do you hear anything foreboding in this opening music? In the ferocious fast passages which follow, listen to the way Tchaikovsky pits the woodwinds against the strings in back and forth exchanges. Also notice the cymbal crashes depicting a sword fight (6:30).

One powerful element of the piece is Tchaikovsky’s ability to build and sustain great anticipation. In the passage following 7:01 the resolution we expect is delayed. When the music slips into the familiar “love theme”, we find ourselves in D-flat major, a world away from the previous tumult.

At 11:17 notice the opening chorale theme in the horns (and later the trumpets) as the development section begins. At 14:21 listen to the unrelenting, sustained pedal tone in the base instruments and the increasing tension which results. Pay attention to how this tension resolves. Consider how the final passage from 18:33 to the end captures the essence of the drama. What feelings do the final B major chords evoke?

Listen to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet a few times and come back tomorrow for more music relating to Valentine’s Day.

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[quote]My bounty is as boundless as the sea, My love as deep; the more I give to thee, The more I have, for both are infinite.[/quote]

[quote]“See how she leans her cheek upon her hand. O, that I were a glove upon that hand That I might touch that cheek!” [/quote]

[quote]O teach me how I should forget to think…[/quote]

-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet