Major Operas | Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky | High Romantic
Boris Godunov, the only project out of nine that Mussorgsky completed himself, has been cited as the great masterpiece of nineteenth-century Russian opera – with its thrilling crowd scenes, historic panorama and the chilling power of its principal character. Boris was unusual in having its chief male role written for a bass voice and for the ‘sung prose’ used instead of verse for the inn scene in Act I, Scene Two.
The opera was also a prime example of realism in music. Boris’s death scene, for instance, tracked the tsar’s fading strength; just as would happen in real life, his vocal line fragments and dims away to nothing as he dies. Many problems had to be overcome before Boris could take the stage. Mussorgsky’s first, ‘raw’, version was rejected by the St Petersburg opera house. Songs and duets were added, the third act was recast and eventually the opera was lengthened to almost three hours. The first performance took place at last on 8 February 1874 but ran for only 25 performances. Boris was then given in Moscow, before the first of Rimsky-Korsakov’s two revised versions was performed at St Petersburg on 10 December 1896.
Boris Godunov, regent of Muscovy, has instigated the murder of Tsar Fyodor’s brother Dmitry. In 1598, after Fyodor’s death and the withdrawal to a monastery of his widow Irina (Boris’s sister), the people turn to Boris as their tsar. The crowds in Moscow are told that Boris is still reluctant to take the throne and call on him to save them from anarchy. When he relents they acclaim him, but he is full of foreboding and prays that he may reign justly.
Five years later Pimen, a monk, is in his cell completing his chronicle of Russia. His novice, Grigory, awakes from a nightmare that suggests high ambition and a sudden fall. He envies Pimen’s memories of war and the court. Pimen describes the murder of Dmitry, who would have been the same age as Grigory, and tells how Boris has usurped the throne. Dmitry plans to impersonate the murdered tsarevich. He arrives at an inn on the Lithuanian border with two dissolute monks, Varlaam and Missail. Varlaam sings a drinking song while Grigory learns from the hostess that sentries are looking for a fugitive. The guards cannot read their orders and Grigory pretends to read a description of Varlaam, giving himself time to escape.
In his rooms in the Kremlin, Boris consoles his daughter Xenia and tells his son Fyodor that soon all Muscovy might be his. He reflects that his rule has brought only unhappiness. At night he sees a vision of a bloodstained child. Boris warns Fyodor not to trust Prince Shuysky, who comes with news of a pretender gathering support in Poland. When questioned, Shuysky relates how the dead tsarevich’s body had appeared...
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