Every so often, a recording comes along in which the conductor's conception of an opera sweeps even defective or unsatisfying performances by solo principals before it. Such was the case of the Tullio Serafin "Ballo in Maschera," the Toscanini "Aida," Furtwangler's "Der Freischutz," Charles Dutoit's "Les Troyens," and this recording, which is actually two complete performances for the cost of one. Philips, then, has scored twice with such a gem - both this set and the 1980 Karajan "Falstaff" were recorded for that label.
Gergiev's "Boris"(es) present an astonishing combination of fire, sweep, drama and musicality in a way I have never heard before. From first note to last in both versions, one is struck by the amount of musical and orchestral detail he is able to bring out, making each scene not only "live" in a dramatic sense, but also pulling the loose threads and uneven scenes together in a way that gives this massive, rambling opera shape and focus. I am simply spellbound by this man's abilities, though I am sure that he must use Toscanini-like rages and epithets to achieve his "miraculous" results!
The Moscow reviewer below is correct: the earlier version of the Pimen-Dmitri scene does not use the original music or words when Grigory (the false Dmitri) awakes. But what does such a niggling detail matter in the face of such an powerful, musical reading?
As for the various performers: neither Nikolai Putilin nor Vladimir Vaneev will efface memories of Boris Christoff's rich, tight-focused voice, but strictly as vocal actors they compete with Christoff and then some. Putilin has the higher voice, more of a baritone really, so that his lowest passages present some problems, and he has the archtypical Slavic "wobble" which means that some of his notes sound a bit shaky; yet he has more voice and a better "ring" on the top than Fedoseyev, the pale-voiced Boris of the early-'80s Philips set. His counterpart in the 1982 version, Vladimir Vaneev, has an altogether darker timbre, more like a Russian Gottlob Frick, and is more of a bass, which means that he comes to some grief in the high-lying passages of the Coronation Scene, but otherwise he is splendid, vocally and histrionically.
The Pimen in both sets, Nikolai Ohotnikov, is absolutely splendid: a rich, warm, well-focused low bass, reminiscent at times of the legendary Lev Sibiriakov (now, there's a name that only die-hard collectors will know!). He, too, sings with tremendous feeling, and is in fact much better than Christoff's Pimen on either set (the 1952 Dobrowen version or the stereo Cluytens version)...for all his vocal gold, Christoff could not project the warmth or humanity of Pimen because he had none in his character. (Don't take my word for it, though: talk to anyone who performed with him, or read Nicolai Gedda's account in his autobiography.)
The 1869 Grigory, Viktor Lutsuk, has a bright, ringing voice and good interpretive skills, but he suffers even worse from Slavic wobble than Putilin. The 1872 Grigory, Vladimir Galusin, is of course one of the great singing-actors of our time, caught here in his early prime with a brighter-sounding top than we are used to.
The Moscow reviewer really seems to hate Olga Borodina's Marina. She sings gloriously but, as usual, with an all-purpose tone that does not show much characterization. Evgeny Nikitin has far and away the finest voice I have ever heard in the role of Rangoni, the underhanded Jesuit, but both singers were easily topped dramatically by Mariana Lipovsek and Serge Leiferkus on the Abbado recording. In fact, this is the greatest "Polish scene" I have ever heard. But there is one detail near the end that simply astonished me: when Marina, Grigory and Rangoni come together in their trio, their voices blend perfectly. This is something I thought I would never hear in a modern opera performance, and certainly not in "Boris"!
As Varlaam, Fyodor Kuznetsov is superb in both sets: this is the best and most rhythmically accurate "Town of Kazan" aria I've ever heard from anyone. As Chaliapin pointed out, Varlaam is not a buffoon, but a wandering pilgrim, a drunk who drinks to soothe his unnamed longings, and the "Town of Kazan" song is not so much a jolly comedy piece as an outburst of this longing for the unnamed, a way of bursting out. Kuznetsov captures this perfectly.
Konstantin Pluzhnikov is a superb Shuisky both vocally and dramatically. Olga Trifonova is a wiry-voiced Xenia but characterizes well. The small roles are all sung well. Evgeny Akimov as the Simpleton will not efface memories of Ivan Kozlovsky, the finest Simpleton on records (in the old Mark Riezen set), or Andrea Velis, who sang the role so well at the Met Opera revival of 1975, but he too is quite good.
The one thing you should remember when judging this recording is that Gergiev, unlike others who have recorded the opera, only used singers from his Kirov Opera company. Galsin and Borodina have become stars, but only after the fact. This is akin to Serafin's using only the Rome Opera cast for his 1943 "Ballo in Maschera," another recording that is remarkably excellent despite the stylistic shortcomings of Beniamino Gigli.
I cannot recommend this recording highly enough. If you have no other "Boris," this is the place to start; and even if you have Christoff, this is the place to go next!