We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Modest Mussorgsky defined raw genius—emphasis on the raw. Alcoholic, epileptic, and plagued with ill health, low income, and lower self-esteem, he lived out his short life as a civil servant with aspirations beyond his so-so musical education. When he died at 42, he left behind an ample volume of music but few finished scores.

Since his death, musicians of every stripe have felt the need to finish his sentences for him—not just carrying on with his abandoned projects but re-composing already complete works. When’s the last time anyone heard Mussorgsky’s original Night on Bald Mountain rather than Rimsky-Korsakov’s radical rewrite? Even the dazzling solo piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition has ceded its place to Ravel’s technicolor dreamcoat of an orchestration. (And that’s just the most popular transcription of the piece among dozens for orchestra and brass band, pipe organ and classical guitar, jazz trio and synthesizer.)

That Mussorgsky was able to pump out the Greatest Russian Opera of All Time, Boris Godunov, is pretty remarkable; that he completed two very different drafts of it is even more so. That Rimsky-Korsakov had to stick his fingers into it and make it his own is not so amazing. Mussorgsky tried to get his first draft produced at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg in 1869. The powers that be said, essentially, “What? No girls?” and the composer was back at the drawing board sprinkling mezzo-soprano parts throughout his testosterone-fest of tsar wannabes, oily cabinet members, and dyspeptic monks. The Mariinsky went for Boris, Mach II, and staged it with some success. But when Mussorgsky’s manuscripts found their posthumous way into Rimsky’s hands, the older composer feared Boris wouldn’t make it in Western markets without a little retooling. A lot of retooling.

Rimsky—Mussorgsky’s onetime roommate, friend, and musical adviser—greatly admired Mussorgsky in the way that respected artists often admire less-tutored visionaries: He heaped praise on his friend’s work while ironing all his wrinkles of idiosyncratic genius into a neatly starched conformity. It’s an oversimplification to paint Rimsky as Salieri to Mussorgsky’s Mozart. But Rimsky, never a musical revolutionary, made popular art with a conservatory imprimatur. What was baldly scored and pungently harmonized in the original Boris had to be made plush and seductive for the world market. Scenes had to be nipped and tucked and shuffled to set off the title role as an attractive star vehicle. And, of course, splashy new music had to be added.

Rimsky’s gambit paid off. The world embraced Boris. Feodor Chaliapin (one of the greatest singing actors of the modern stage) made the title role his signature piece from the 1890s through the 1930s. Mussorgsky became a household name, even if a second name crept into the fine print. To be fair to Rimsky, he did say that his version of Boris should find favor only until the original was deemed the finer work. That’s what has happened in recent years, but only after many hands had tried their own “improvements” (Shostakovich among them).

Washington Opera is mounting Mussorgsky’s second version, of 1874 (with a few additions from the original draft), in its first go at Boris in its 40-plus year history. Just a decade ago it would have been hard to imagine the Opera House Orchestra even getting through this tricky, marathon score without derailing a few times. But the time it has put in under music director Heinz Fricke has paid dividends and now, under Isaac Karabtchevsky’s baton, it sounds terrific. The first thing you notice, moving from Rimsky Redux to the Thing Itself, is how economical the orchestration is. Like Monteverdi before him and Britten after him, Mussorgsky painted his vocal lines with a handful of instruments—but the right handful—and expanded to full ensemble only when cresting emotional seas demanded. Then there’s his feel for vernacular expression. Beyond the composer’s avowed love of Russian folk traditions, evident in so much of the score, he had a real gift for making compelling music out of the natural rise and fall of speech. (This intimate link between speech patterns and melody is another feature common to both the earliest operas and music of our own time—Steve Reich’s in particular.)

Most of all, Boris sounds way ahead of its time, and only partly because of the quirky, untutored brilliance of its music. Mussorgsky’s operas were part of a flowering of psychologically complex writing that found kinship in late Verdi and Wagner. The composer’s own libretto is based on a rather Shakespearean history play by Pushkin. Like Richard III, Macbeth, or Claudius in the final acts of their respective plays, Boris is a monarch who has knifed his way to the throne and finds that, once seated, he’s in a shaky little chair.

The murdered child-tsar, Dmitri, has been making regular nightly visits to Boris in his tortured dreams, and now a bored young monk named Grigory, deciding that the Kremlin is better digs than the monastery, has taken on the persona of Dmitri in order to topple Boris. On the road to Moscow, the False Dmitri picks up a power-mad Polish princess, Marina, and her sidekick Rangoni, a sleazy Jesuit bent on reintroducing a little Pope-worship to Orthodox Russia. We also meet a pair of depraved clerics on the run, Boris’ turncoat chief of staff Shuisky, and, oh yes, the Russian People: They’re the great glory of this opera and of this production, teeming masses of individuals with specific characters and voices colored with peasant saltiness or hushed devotion, as called for. Karabtchevsky molds the chorus beautifully from the pit, and they’re directed with painstaking specificity. Audiences in our own capital city should get a kick out of watching these crowds admit they know that Boris murdered Dmitri and that Grigory isn’t really Dmitri, and then shout their support for each one, in turn, regardless.

The production—a known quantity at Covent Garden—was directed by the late, great film auteur Andrei Tarkovsky, and has been remounted by Stephen Lawless. Tarkovsky, known for his glacially paced, breathtakingly imagistic psychodramas, certainly makes his presence known here, though it would be interesting to know where his work leaves off and Lawless’ begins. Scenes dovetail cinematically, with slo-mo choristers forming visual links between private policy-making and public muscle-flexing, and spectral figures rising out of the tangle of bodies.

Nicolas Dvigoubsky’s set supports the action with grand, metaphorically weighty icons. A central edifice (palace or cathedral?) crumbles under jerry-rigged scaffolding. Ramparts are built on the detritus of Russia’s past—hunks of masonry, dismembered furniture, tarnished relics, even heaps of lifeless peasants—as if the stage were built from the same blood and sinew and frozen earth as the score itself. One image is unforgettable: A gargantuan pendulum swings silently past the watchful gaze of Dmitri’s ghost; as Boris lies dead near his overturned throne, Boris’ son cowers in the corner and Shuisky stands by emotionlessly, clutching the tsar’s robes.

The Polish Act comes off less successfully. This is the music (a hefty full quarter of the opera’s length) that Mussorgsky added into his second draft to create some romance between Marina and Grigory and introduce Father Rangoni, the ultimate high-church heavy. The problem in this production is the way the swagger and insinuation of these scenes are mined not for their cynical power but for cartoonish melodrama. Victoria Livengood is a darkly alluring Marina, but she’s allowed too many campy wicked-stepmotherisms. Rangoni, voiced with reptilian sibilants by Alan Held, is simply too much of a caricature here, slithering back and forth past the footlights like some low-rent, Jesuitical Nosferatu. (His arch, final take to the audience would be a lot more effective if it weren’t telegraphed so ham-fistedly throughout the act.) Even the sets lose integrity and wind up looking cheesy in the castle gardens scene.

Far more convincing as a portrayal is veteran tenor Wieslaw Ochman’s Shuisky. The official smile, the barely concealed boredom, the chill leeching through the bonhomie, the feline behavioral tics all make this Shuisky a complex creature, appealing and appalling in roughly equal measure. Vocally, too, Ochman finds a plaintive beauty, a stillness that belies the minister’s dangerous maneuverings.

The mixed cast of Russians and Americans sings at a consistently high level and acts decently much of the time. As Grigory, Patrick Denniston sounds uncannily like Russian tenor Vladimir Galusin, with his slam-bang voice and unmodulated high volume. But it’s a thrilling sound, and he works his boyish good looks to make the False Dmitri a sweetly clueless teenager overcome by raging hormones and vaulting ambition. Stefan Szkafarowsky has a boorishly good time with the hard-drinking friar Varlaam. Pierre Lefebvre is a moving Simpleton, hooded and deformed, led on a rope leash by a peasant boy, bemoaning Russia’s future in the quiet, tonally ambiguous, utterly pessimistic finale.

Bass Samuel Ramey, the only real superstar in his voice range on the current operatic scene, brings his distinctive, deep, sable voice to the title role. His vocalism is as smooth and glossy as the blow-dried helmet of hair he seems intent on sporting in role after role. But he doesn’t reach in and grip our hearts as some Borises can. Ramey does quiet paranoia like nobody’s business, but when it comes to those dark-night-of-the-soul moments, he seems to be standing outside the character, not inhabiting it. As odious as black-and-white categories like “singing Borises” and “acting Borises” are, Ramey is very much a singing Boris. As such, he’s one of the finest the century has produced. But it’s easy to marvel at his voice while suppressing a little yawn.

What’s important in Boris Godunov is recognizing that this is not some windy grand opera but an emotionally charged sequence of intimate encounters. WashOp’s production respects the work by playing it like an ensemble drama. How gratifying that ways have been found to put the psychological, the political, the spiritual, and the archetypal sides of Mussorgsky’s inimitable masterwork onstage as well.

Oh, by the way, make sure you hit the restroom before curtain-time: This sucker’s over four hours long, with one measly intermission. Trust me, the experience is worth it. CP