BORIS GODOUNOV, based on an historical event, takes place in feudal Russian at the close of the sixteenth century. Czar Feodor, son of Ivan the Terrible, has died without an heir, thanks to his young brother Dimitri’s peculiar demise.
The country is in chaos, though a logical leader has been selected: Boris Godounov. Boris secludes himself at a monastery near Moscow where a crowd of peasants has gathered.
SCENE I: In a monastery courtyard near Moscow, peasants are goaded by police into clamoring for Boris Godounov to take over the vacant throne. Shchelkalov, secretary of the Duma (parliament), announces that Boris refuses and Russia is doomed. A procession of pilgrims passes, praying. Boris has decided to ascend the throne, and the great bells of Moscow herald his coronation. Boris appears in triumph but admits to himself that he is haunted by a strange foreboding. He invites his people to a banquet, and the crowd cheers him.
SCENE II: In a dark monastery cell, the monk Pimen is finishing a history of Russia. Grigori, a novice, awakens from a nightmare and describes it to Pimen: he climbed a lofty tower until the people of Moscow looked like ants, but they mocked him, and he fell. Pimen recommends fasting and prayer – contrasting the solitude of the cloister with the outside world of sin and idle pleasure. When Grigori asks about the dead prince Dimitri, Pimen tells him Boris ordered the boy’s murder so he could become czar himself, adding that the czarevich would have been Grigori’s age. Grigori cries that Boris will be punished.
SCENE III: Near the Lithuanian border, an Innkeeper welcomes three guests; the disguised Grigori – now a renegade, wanted by the police – and two friars, Varlaam and Missail. Varlaam accompanies his drinking with a song about the siege of Kazan, then dozes off. The Innkeeper tells them that the border road is closed, whereupon a frontier guard enters with a warrant for Grigori’s arrest. The guard cannot read it, and Grigori obliges, pretending it describes Varlaam. When the latter laboriously reads the true description, Grigori flees.
SCENE IV: In the czar’s palace study, Boris’ daughter, Xenia, laments the death of her fiance. The Nurse tries to cheer her. Boris enters, studying a map of Russia. He tells his son, Feodor, that he will rule one day and then, alone, ponders the fears that haunt his dreams. Prince Shuiski comes to report on the insurrection led by Grigori, who clams to be Dimitri, rightful heir to the throne. Shuiski assures the czar that the real Dimitri was killed. Dismissing the wily prince, Boris gives way to terror, imagining he sees the child’s ghost as the clock begins to strike. Stricken with remorse, he begs God’s forgiveness.
SCENE I: At the castle of Sandomierz in Poland, ambitious Princess Marina muses on Grigori’s plans to conquer Russia and on her own dream of becoming czarina. The Jesuit Rangoni tells her to enslave this false Dimitri with her beauty and bring Russia under the domination of Rome.
SCENE II: In the castle gardens, Grigori waits to woo Marina. Rangoni slips in and assures him that the princess is eager to meet him, but makes him hide while her guests dance a polonaise. At last, the schemers are together, the haughty Marina quickly humbled by Grigori’s arrogance. Dreaming of glory, the two swear love.
SCENE I: Before the Cathedral of St. Basil, the people debate the possibility that the real Dimitri still lives. A group of urchins runs in, tormenting a Simpleton and stealing his only kopeck. Boris and his retinue appear, and the Simpleton asks Boris to kill the boys the way he killed Dimitri. Shuddering, Boris protects the Simpleton, asking him to pray for him, but the Simpleton refuses to intercede for a murderer, bewailing Russia’s dark future.
SCENE II: In the Duma, Shchelkalov denounces the false Dimitri, but Shuiski reminds the boyars (nobles) of Boris’ hysteria. Now the czar himself staggers in, protesting his innocence. Pimen is brought in to tell how a blind shepherd was healed at the grave of the murdered czarevich. Crushed by this omen, Boris dismisses the nobles and sends for his son, bidding the boy farewell and naming him heir. As bells toll, Boris falls dying, begging God’s forgiveness.
NOTES ON THE PROGRAM
by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz for Teatro Lirico D’Europa
A masterpiece by any standard, Modest Moussorgski’s Boris Godounov brings Old Russia to life with its vivid and sweeping panorama of Czar Boris’ chaotic reign. The opera had its world premier in 1874 at the Marinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Moussorgski wrote both the libretto and the music, an astonishing achievement for this largely instinctive genius, a man with only a scant formal training in his art. Working for years as a clerk in a government office, he had little time to dedicate to music; and his troubled life was far too short. Born in 1839, he died in 1881, just 42 years old. In addition to Boris Godounov, he left behind a trove of music that includes such orchestral works as Pictures at an Exhibition and Saint John’s Night on Bare Mountain, many songs, and two unfinished operas, later completed by other composers.
The Background of the Opera
The plot is based on Boris Godounov by Alexander Pushkin, the most celebrated Russian poet of the 1800s. Pushkin, inspired by Karamzin’s history of Russia and Shakespeare’s history plays, wrote 25 long, historical scenes about the Czar. Moussorgski’s libretto condenses this work into an epic opera, which begins as Boris was crowned as Czar (1598) and ends with his madness and death in 1605. After the grand promise of his early reign, Boris’s era gradually became known as the “Time of Troubles,” when everyone, even he, lived in fear. With surprising agility, Moussorgski leads us through the confusion of the time in Russia and Poland. He also tells something of a detective story, for the plot of Boris Godounov turns on the fact that Boris gained the throne by ordering the murder of Little Dimitri, the boy-prince who was the legitimate heir. Little Dimitri had been stabbed to death in a horrific blood bath about twenty years before the opera opens; and it is his murder that haunts Boris and drives him mad.
Moussorgski, with his profound understanding of human psychology, opens the hearts of his characters to give the story its wild thrust and sheer raw power. This Russia is a huge, unsettled empire of peasants, monks, friars, beggars, a Simpleton, an Innkeeper, a Nurse, the police and palace guards, royal princes and disloyal conspirators, and finally, the Czar. All are realized with great individuality in the complex psychological portraits that breathe life into this “portrait gallery.”
Boris, the Czar, towers above everyone. We follow Boris from his majesty to his humanity and inner torment, as he suffers from the guilt that brings him down. His first lines in the Coronation Scene show how troubled he is, sad and filled with dark foreboding. He is, however, devout and sincere when he prays to God to bless his reign. The Czar is also a caring father. Moussorgski plumbs the emotions of Boris children and explores his love for them. Xenia is his melancholy teenaged daughter, while her little brother, the high-spirited Fyodor, plays jokes on people and tumbles around like a real child. Boris clearly adores them, but has lost interest in power and fame, and even in life itself. He fears his guilt and “the hand of the Lord.” He has nightmares in which he sees the murdered child, Little Dimitri. He holds supreme power in his realm, but he is emotionally shaken. Soon he learns that an invading army, headed by a usurper, will try to overthrow him. That threat alone, however, is not enough to bring on his final collapse. This comes only after the wily, treacherous Prince Shuiski tells Boris that the usurper is named Dimitri. With that, Boris teeters toward madness. He had had Little Dimitri murdered long ago! How can he be alive? Terrified, Boris asks Shuiski whether he is cure the child is really dead. “Yes,” the prince says, and when he describes how the child died, Boris can bear no more. “Ah, I’m suffocating!”he shouts. This is the final irony: the Czar loves his own children, but he has had another child killed. His inner demons attack from all sides, as he thinks he sees the murdered Little Dimitri coming toward him, moaning and crying. In the last scenes, Boris is ill and hallucinating, even tormented by the sound of a clock. Finally, he bids his son farewell and dies.
With equal skill, Moussorgski captures the spirit of the Russian people, raising them to the status of “a character” in their own right, filled with vitality as they sing their great choral passages. Beyond the masses, the composer depicts the other figures brilliantly. The pious monk Pimenn is dedicated to completing his history of Russia, but he rises to the occasion when he comes face to face with Boris. The monk Grigori is ambitious and convincing, a twenty-year-old adventurer who schemes to become “the False Dimitri” and overthrow Boris Godounov. Running away from his monastery, Grigori becomes an outlaw, hiding in an inn, as he tries to cross the border. The Innkeeper is a lusty and believable peasant woman. She serves Dimitri and two shabby beggars, Varlaam and Missail, who are Lay Friars, living on charity. Varlaam, a drunk and the brighter of the two, is marvelously drawn, especially in his “salvation scene,” when he manages to sober up and save his life by spelling out a few lines of an arrest warrant. He turns the police on the False Dimitri, but the pretender escapes. Safe in Poland, the False Dimitri swears that he is the heir to the Russian throne. Although the Polish officials had believed that Little Dimitri was dead, they play their own sly game and accept this stranger, knowing what an advantage Poland would gain if he were to become Czar; Russia would become a Roman Catholic country, and the “pagan” Russian Orthodoxy would vanish. This is the political core of the opera. The False Dimitri meets his match in the devious, volatile Marina, the daughter of a powerful Polish nobleman. Taunting him cruelly, then wooing him with grace and even passion, she has the soul of an ambitious, manipulative woman. Like Boris, she and the other characters are unforgettable. They live, from the Czar down to his lowliest subject; and to meet them once is to remember them forever.