If only one opera were to symbolise Russia, it would surely be Boris Godunov.Not only does the score admirably summarise Modest Mussorgsky’s style, with his bells, his carillons, his orchestra with its wild variegations and his flamboyant choral scenes, it also draws its strength from the juxtaposition of two levels that masterfully respond to and penetrate one another:on the one hand, the imposing, terrifying and pitiable portrait of Boris, the usurping tsar eaten up by self-destructive omnipotence; on the other, the Russian people, the opera’s real hero, who appear in the very first scenes and regularly return to comment on the action and precipitate it.Against this partly true background painted by Pushkin, Mussorgsky pulls the strings on a national drama which, through the magic of a language as real as it is beautiful, is transformed into a grandiose universal tragedy.
The action takes place in Russia between 1598 and 1605; the story tells of the arrival on the throne, the reign and the fall of Tsar Boris Godunov. In order to achieve power, Boris became involved in the murder of little Dmitriy, the legitimate heir to the throne; however, the circumstances of the tsarevich’s disappearance remain suspicious. Informed by the monk Pimen, the novice Grigoriy undertakes to pass himself off as the true heir: he is the same age as the tsarevich would have been.The sufferings of his people, the fear of being overthrown, and the remorse he feels for his crimes gradually bring Boris Godunov, the uncertain tsar, down into solitude and paranoia. When Grigoriy, encouraged by the Polish princess Marina, marches on Moscow at the head of an army to overthrow him, Boris does not even have time to fight and oppose him: eaten away by his madness, he collapses, dead, at the end of his delirium.
In a Russia stricken by plague, famine and political crises, the people resolve to acclaim their new tsar, Boris Godunov.He appears troubled, assailed by doubts and presentiments – no one knows at the time that in order to accede to the throne he had the legitimate claimant – Dmitriy, one of the sons of Ivan the Terrible – eliminated.
The novice Grigoriy has learned from the old monk Pimen of the crimes of Boris Godunov. Figuring that he is the same age as the murdered tsarevichDmitriy, Grigoriy feels moved by a grand destiny and undertakes to overthrow Boris and conquer the throne. Travelling incognito at an inn, he barely eludes the police who have been alerted to his plans, and he passes the defrocked monk Varlaam off as the real fugitive.
Five years have passed since Boris’s coronation. The loneliness of power worsens the tsar’s torments, and the people are dying of starvation….Moreover, Prince Shuysky informs him of the revolt fomented by a usurper who us passing himself off as Dmitriy, the legitimate pretender to the throne.With his son Fyodor, the tsar ponders his accession to the throne.
In Poland, Grigoriy finds the lovely Marina Mniszech, with whom he is in love. The young woman, ravenously ambitious and pushed by the monk Rangoni, dreams only of conquering the throne and Moscow: let Grigoriy take the throne, and she will grant him her hand.
Boris’s end is imminent: the people intuit his crimes, and a poor Innocent compares him publicly to Herod. Even though the assembly of boyars issues an edict condemning the false claimant Grigoriy, Boris is trapped by his crimes: suffering a fit of delirium, he appears, evoking the murdered little tsar, asks God to pardon him, and collapses on the floor as the crowd beats him:it is one of the most extraordinary scenes in the repertoire. The false Dmitriy will be crowned as the new tsar of Russia.
Excerpt : Boris’s death. « Proshchay, moy syn, umirayu »