The Rediscovery of Mattheson's Boris Goudenow

The Rediscovery of Mattheson's Boris Goudenow

In his 1957 book on the Hamburg Opera, Die Barockoper in Hamburg (1678-1738), the eminent musicologist Hellmuth Christian Wolff wrote “When I undertook this work in the years between 1938–1941, I had no idea that it would be 15 years before it would come to print, and that by then the musical examples from many operas which I had transcribed would be the only remains of the then rich sources of the Hamburg Opera. Irreplaceable is the loss of the entire manuscript section of the Library of Hamburg. Among the most painful losses are almost all the scores of Johann Mattheson, in particular his Boris Goudenow.”

Mattheson, one of Northern Europe’s leading composers, directors, and theorists of the 18th-century and Handel’s most influential mentor in the composition of dramatic works, was never able to get his greatest operatic masterpiece, Boris Goudenow performed. Financial problems at the Hamburg Opera, political wrangling over the kinds of works presented there and questions about the musicians’ ability to convincingly perform his difficult score prevented the opera from being premiered in 1710. Soon after this, Mattheson was appointed Kapellmeister at the Hamburger Dom where he turned his attention to oratorios and passions. In 1728, deafness forced him to resign his position, leading him to concentrate on writing about German music, its history and performance. As a result, Boris has, to this day, never been performed.
In recent years, the political changes in Eastern Europe have facilitated the return of library and museum collections which disappeared after the end of the Second World War. Before the bombing of Hamburg, the State Library sent its most valuable manuscripts to a castle near Dresden for safe-keeping. Russian soldiers transferred the collection to St. Petersburg after the war, but many of the most precious volumes were taken to Eriwan, Armenia by a scholar who was particularly interested in the works of Mattheson and J.C. Bach. The score of Boris was returned to Hamburg in 1998.

The Boston Early Music Festival has been the world’s leading festival of pre-romantic music for the last 20 years. In 1997, under the artistic leadership of Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, they embarked on a unique project to identify and produce the most important examples of undiscovered Baroque operas beginning with a production of Luigi Rossi’s Orfeo (1647) which played to enthusiastic audiences not only in Boston itself but also at the Tanglewood Festival and at the Drottningholm Court Theatre near Stockholm. Subsequent festivals have brought a series of triumphs to the stage while also marking a deliberate march through time, including Cavalli’s Ercole Amante (1662), Lully’ Thésée (1675), and Conradi’s Ariadne (1691). These productions have won numerous awards and accolades along with invitations for guest appearances at other leading North American and European festivals.

As the search was on for the most significant opera to represent the first decade of the 18th century, the incredible rediscovery of Boris came to our attention. The decision has been made to produce this work at the Boston Festival in June 2005 with an all-star cast and orchestra including the best performers in the field. The cast consists of 10 soloists and chorus, accompanied by a 30-piece orchestra comprised of strings, oboes, recorders, trumpets, bassoons, 2 theorbos, Baroque harp and 2 harpsichords directed by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs. The opera also features a children’s chorus and ballet and a troupe of virtuoso Baroque dancers choreographed by the irrepressible Lucy Graham. The sets and costumes will be modeled after the spectacular Hamburg designs of Oswald Harms with special attention paid to the distinctive costumes and decor of the Russian aristocracy of the time. The staging is aimed at bringing the drama to life with maximum color, variety, emotion and elegance as possible, following the descriptions of the brilliant Hamburg productions of the early 18th century. A colorful tradition in the Hamburg Opera was the inclusion of a comic servant, based on the Italian Commedia dell’arte practice and here represented by Boris Goudenow’s lazy servant Bogda, whose primary interest is to do as little work as possible, while eating, drinking and sleeping as frequently as possible. The juxtaposition of the serious life and death drama between the principal characters and the hilarious shenanigans of Bogda follows the classic Shakespearean practice of comedy as a means of making the tragedy that much more poignant.

Our artistic goal is to present exciting, vibrant theatrical performances inspired by the creative genius of the greatest composers, singers and designers of the past. The significance of Boris Goudenow to European history, its superb musical quality, its spectacular rediscovery, and its symbolic position as a work which brings together Russian history with the pan-European history of the Baroque opera, has led us to seek opportunities to present this production in both Western and Eastern Europe in August and September of 2005.

Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, BEMF Artistic Co-Directors