mattheson boris goudenow CPO 555502-2

Johann Mattheson (1681-1764)
Boris Goudenow (1710)
Boris Goudenow – Olivier Gourdy (bass)
Axinia – Julie Goussot (sporano)
Fedro – Sreten Manojlović (bass)
Theodorus Iwanowitz – Yevhen Rakhmanin (bass)
Irina – Flore Van Meerssche (soprano)
Olga – Alice Lackner (mezzo)
Josennah – Eric Price (tenor)
Gavust – Joan Folqué (tenor)
Theresia/Andrea Marchiol
rec. 2021, Chamber Hall, Tiroler Landestheater, Innsbruck, Austria
Libretto in German/Italian and English translation
CPO 555502-2 [2 CDs: 148]

Newly arrived from CPO is this baroque rarity that is receiving its premiere recording. Johann Mattheson was a German composer who split his time between music composition and active service as a diplomat for Hamburg, which was a hub of European diplomatic activity in the early 1700s. Boris Goudenow was written for Hamburg’s famous Goose Market Opera House, which was reputed to be one of the finest opera companies at that time. While the opera was completed in 1710 and slated for a gala premiere, suddenly it was withdrawn with no explanation given. Even in Mattheson’s writings he refers to the cancellation most evasively. The accompanying booklet notes propose that there was likely a political or diplomatic reason for this that is in some way related to the ongoing War of the Spanish Succession. Whatever the reason, Boris Goudenow was set aside and forgotten as all of Mattheson’s compositions were as the eighteenth century travelled on. The manuscript scores were finally placed in Hamburg City Library where they remained in relative obscurity until WWII when they all disappeared. In 1998 Mattheson’s scores were discovered in the city of Yerevan, in Armenia, after which they were returned to Germany and are deposited in the State and University Library of Hamburg. Boris Goudenow finally achieved its world stage premiere in 2005, 295 years late, in the city that it was composed for.

Mattheson’s score observes all of the usual conventions of the Hamburg style of Baroque opera, which have a greater variety of comic versus tragic themes than one sees in the Handel operas from the same period. Anyone who has heard Reinhard Keiser’s Croesus in the excellent René Jacobs recording (review) will understand the difference between the two styles. As with other operas that were created for the Hamburg opera, the arias are often sung in Italian and the recitatives are in German. What is apparent on first listening to Boris Goudenow is that the opera is suffused with a much darker atmosphere than other baroque operas of the same period. Mattheson wrote his own libretto based on a historically inaccurate book “Stories and Report of the Grand Duchy of Muschow” by P. Petraeus, published in a German edition in 1620. Mattheson’s libretto tells the story of Boris Godunov’s rise to power but uses different historical characters than appear in the Pushkin play and later, Mussorgsky’s opera. Quite surprisingly, only Boris himself is common to both works. Mattheson’s opera concentrates on other potential successors to the abruptly ended Rurik dynasty, which brought about Russia’s “Time of troubles”. Don’t bother looking for Ivan the Terrible, his son Dmitri, or any of the other key historical figures here. Only Ivan’s older son Feodor makes an appearance, although his name has been changed to Theodorus Iwanowitz. The power struggle begins when Theodorus dies suddenly at the close of Act One. Mattheson’s music is a series of arias, duets and trios that all combine of feelings of love with grasping for power, which is what seems to give this score its darker tint. To my ears the most strikingly original piece is the unaccompanied cannon quartet which opens the Second Act and depicts the political gloom that Russia finds itself in after the Tsar’s death.

The cast that was assembled for this recording is generally fine and they all work hard at trying to convey the scheming nature of virtually every person in this opera. Chief among them is Boris himself. Olivier Gourdy’s bass is not huge but he uses it extremely well, and he is fairly deft at managing coloratura passagework. His first aria begins with the words “Upward! Shall always be my motto”, in which Gourdy shades his tone meaningfully to convey Boris’ duplicitous nature. The previous Tsar, Theodorus, is depicted by Yevhen Rakhmanin who is a firm-toned bass, but his upper range sounds a bit short to my ears. Sreten Manojlović as Fedro reveals a slender tone but he compensates for this with several attempts at nuanced shading of the vocal line which completely wins me over. Eric Price as Josennah shows off his delightfully buoyant-sounding tenor which makes his power-hungry character sound slightly off-kilter. Joan Folqué as the comic character Gavust characterizes his music well but he is frequently overwhelmed by the recording which decidedly favours the orchestra.

Among the women in the cast Julie Goussot ‘s Axinia shows off her creamy-toned soprano quite well although on some isolated high notes her voice can turn white and hooty-sounding. Alice Lackner’s appealing and firm-toned mezzo is well suited to Olga’s arias. Her character often seems to be placed slightly outside of the action which gives her scenes an element of observant commentary.

Andrea Marchiol and the Theresia ensemble give a fairly driven account of the score. Perhaps this is also something to do with the recording balance, which makes the orchestra extremely prominent and relegates the singers more distantly behind them. The harspischord is given the most prominent place in the sound field, which is not something I have encountered before. CPO’s booklet contains the full libretto and an English translation but, as is often the case with this company, the notes about the opera are given in somewhat confusing English. In addition, the booklet makes no mention of why they chose to include orchestral interludes by Georg Telemann and Reinhard Keiser. Presumably there is some music that got lost or remained uncomposed for scene changes that would necessitate this. It should not be left for the listeners to guess about.

Mike Parr

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