14 Jun 2020

Mussorgsky – Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov, an opera in four acts with prologue

Modest Mussorgsky, composer. Libretto by the composer, based on Alexander Pushkin's drama Boris Godunov and Nikolai Karamazin's History of the Russian Empire

First performance: 8 February 1874 at the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

Principal Characters

Boris GodunovBaritone
Fyodor, his sonMezzo-soprano
Xenia, his daughterSoprano
Xenia's nurseLow mezzo-soprano
Prince Vasiliĭ Ivanovič ShuĭskiĭTenor
Andreĭ Ščelkalov, council secretaryBaritone
Pimen, chronicler, anchoriteBass
Pretender (False Dimitriĭ, Grigoriĭ)Tenor
Marina Mnishek, daughter of the governor of SandomirMezzo-soprano or dramatic soprano
Rangoni, conspiratorial JesuitBass
Varlaam, itinerant monkBass
Misail, itinerant monkTenor
Hostess of the innMezzo-soprano
Simpleton (Yurodivyĭ)Tenor
Mikitič, police officerBass

Time and Place

1598-1605, Russia and Poland


Boris Godunov, the regent of the young Tsar Fyodor, has arranged the assasination of the Tsar's half-brother and heir Dimitriĭ, in order to seize power. When the Tsar himself dies Boris pretends to decline the crown, but his agents incite the Muscovite crowd to acclaim him as the new Tsar. Though racked with guilt, Boris is crowned. In the monastery of Chudov an old monk Pimen is writing a chronicle of Russia. He tells his novice Grigoriĭ of the history surrounding Boris, and Grigoriĭ resolves to avenge the murdered Dimitriĭ. Leaving the monastery Grigoriĭ claims to be the dead Tsarevich and with two vagabond friars Varlaam and Misail escapes across the border into Lithuania. In his Kremlin rooms Boris learns of the pretender. His councillor Shuĭskiĭ aims to reassure him by recounting the murder of Dimitriĭ but this throws Boris into a state of hallucination.

In Poland, Grigoriĭ's lover Marina dreams of becoming tsarina and her Jesuit confessor Rangoni exhorts her to support the Catholic cause. Marina joins Grigoriĭ in a moonlit rendezvous and she drives him forward with his ambitions.

In the Kromy forest the people are in disordered revolt against Boris but rally behind Grigoriĭ's call to follow him to Moscow. A simpleton is left behind bewailing the fate of the Russian people. The boyars hold an emergency meeting in the council hall in Moscow and Shuĭskiĭ describes the Tsar's unstable mental state, confirmed when Boris enters. Pimen arrives to describe a miraculous cure performed at the tomb of Dimitriĭ, causing the Tsar to collapse. Boris bids farewell to his son, prays for Russia, and dies.

Schematic (Rimsky-Korsakov Edition, 1908)

Scene 1.At the Novodeviči Cloister
Chorus of Wandering Holy Beggars
Scene 2.Kremlin. Coronation
Act I
Scene 1.Monk's Cell. Night
Scene 2.Inn near the Lithuanian Border
Hostess' Song
Varlaam's Song
Act II
In Boris' Apartment
Song about the Gnat
Clapping Game
Boris' Recitative and Aria
Chiming Clock
Scene 1.Marina's Boudoir. Chorus of Girls of Sandomir
Marina's Aria
Scene 2.Night, Garden, Fountain
Polonaise with Chorus
Act IV
Scene 1.Near Kromy
Scene 2.Session of the Council of Boyars. Death of Boris
Pimen's Narrative