Mussorgsky’s vast opera Boris Godunov is centered on the historical figure who was tsar of Russia in the late 16th century, the mysteries surrounding his rise to the throne, and the uprising of the man who claimed to be Dmitry, the true heir to the throne.
Responsible for ordering the assassination of the family of the previous tsar, Boris Godunov is next in-line for the throne. For a decade he reigns over Russia, troubled by the knowledge of his unjust ascension, but believing that he has done the right thing for his family. When a young monk in a monastery learns of Boris’s crime, he decides to try and take the throne for himself. He claims to be Dmitry, the young heir to the throne that was murdered all those years ago, and draws armies from all the surrounding lands to help him return to the throne that was rightfully his.
Meanwhile, Boris’s guilt is plaguing him more and more every day, and he has started to be haunted by the child that he murdered. The news that this child has now risen from the grave to claim his birthright, and that he has armies supporting his campaign, is just too much for Boris. A visit from the elderly monk who knows the truth about Boris’s crime seals his fate: Boris suffers a fatal heart attack, leaving the throne to the imposter.
Alongside Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is one of the world’s favorite Russian operas.
Source: stage agent
Composer: Modest Mussorgsky
Librettist: Modest Mussorgsky
Based on “Boris Godunov” by Alexander Pushkin and “History of the Russian State” by Nikolay Karamzin
Set in 17th century Russia
Premiere: 27 January 1874
Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg
Boris Godunov has retreated to the Novodevichy Monastery near Moscow. The Streltsy police force a crowd to beg Boris to become tsar of Russia. The boyar Shchelkalov announces that Boris still refuses the throne and laments Russia’s insoluble misery. A procession of pilgrims prays to God for help. The Streltsy warn the crowd to be at the Kremlin the next morning ready to cheer.
The following day, the bells of Moscow herald the coronation of Boris. The new tsar, overcome by fear and melancholy, implores God to look kindly on him. He invites the people to a feast. The people cheer.
In the Chudov Monastery, the monk Pimen is writing the last chapter of his history of Russia. The novice Grigory awakens from a nightmare and expresses regret that he hasn’t tasted glory in war and society. He questions Pimen about the dead Tsarevich Dmitry, rightful heir to Boris’s throne. Pimen recounts the events of Dmitry’s murder (the assassins implicated Boris before they died) and mentions that the tsarevich would have been Grigory’s age. Alone, Grigory decides to flee the cloister and condemns Boris: “You will not escape the judgment of man or God!”
Now on a mission to expose Boris and proclaim himself the Tsarevich Dmitry, Grigory is trying to cross into Lithuania to find support for his cause. He falls in with two vagrant monks, Varlaam and Missail, at an inn near the border, and uses them as cover. No sooner has he asked directions to the border from the innkeeper, who warns that the frontier is heavily patrolled, than a police officer enters with a warrant for Grigory’s arrest. The officer is illiterate, so Grigory reads the warrant, substituting a description of Varlaam for his own. But Varlaam can read. Grigory escapes, pursued by the Streltsy.
In Boris’s apartments, his daughter mourns the death of her fiancé. Boris comforts her tenderly, talks intimately with his son about inheriting the throne, then reflects to himself on his inconsolable sadness: All that he does for his people seems to go wrong, and he is blamed for everything after the murder of the tsarevich. Shuisky, a powerful boyar, brings news of a pretender to the Russian throne, supported by the Polish court and the Pope. When Boris learns that the pretender claims to be Dmitry, he is deeply shaken. Shuisky reassures him again that the real tsarevich was in fact killed and tells of seeing the boy’s body after his murder––over three days there was no sign of decay, only a mysterious radiance. Shuisky leaves, and Boris gives way to his terror, imagining that he sees Dmitry’s ghost. Torn by guilt and regret, he prays for forgiveness.
Outside the Cathedral of St. Basil in Moscow, starving peasants debate whether Tsarevich Dmitry still lives, as news reaches them that his troops are near. A group of children torment a holy fool and steal his last kopek. When Boris and his retinue come from the cathedral to distribute alms, the holy fool asks Boris to kill the children the way he killed Dmitry. Shuisky orders the holy fool seized, but Boris instead asks his accuser to pray for him. The holy fool refuses to intercede for a murderer. When Boris’s retinue passes and the people disperse, the holy fool laments Russia’s dark future.
In the Duma, the council of boyars passes a death sentence on the pretender. Shuisky arrives with an account of Boris’s hallucinations of the murdered tsarevich. Boris suddenly storms in, disoriented and crying out to the dead child. When he regains his composure, Shuisky brings Pimen before the Duma. Pimen tells of a man who was cured of blindness while praying at Dmitry’s grave. Boris collapses. He sends the boyars away, calling for his son. Naming him heir to his throne, he bids a loving farewell to his children and dies.
Source: Metropolitan Opera