Modest Mussorgsky "Boris Godunov" (opera in 4 acts). Production by Alexander Sokurov
Performed in Russian
Premiere of this production: 25 Apr 2007
The performance has 3 intermissions
Running time: 4 hours
Libretto by Modest Mussorgsky, based on Alexander Pushkin’s play of the same name
Boris Godunov is an opera by Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881). The work was composed between 1868 and 1873 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. It is Mussorgsky's only completed opera and is considered his masterpiece.Its subjects are the Russian ruler Boris Godunov, who reigned as Tsar (1598 to 1605) during the Time of Troubles, and his nemesis, the False Dmitriy (reigned 1605 to 1606). The Russian-language libretto was written by the composer, and is based on the "dramatic chronicle" Boris Godunov by Aleksandr Pushkin, and, in the Revised Version of 1872, on Nikolay Karamzin's History of the Russian State.
Boris Godunov, among major operas, shares with Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlos (1867) the distinction of having the most complex creative history and the greatest wealth of alternative material. The composer created two versions - the Original Version of 1869, which was rejected for production by the Imperial Theatres, and the Revised Version of 1872, which received its first performance in 1874 in Saint Petersburg. These versions constitute two distinct ideological conceptions, not two variations of a single plan.
Boris Godunov has seldom been performed in either of the two forms left by the composer, frequently being subjected to cuts, recomposition, re-orchestration, transposition of scenes, conflation of the original and revised versions, or translation into another language.
Several composers, chief among them Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Dmitri Shostakovich, have created new editions of the opera to "correct" perceived technical weaknesses in the composer's original scores. Although these versions held the stage for decades, Mussorgsky's individual harmonic style and orchestration are now valued for their originality, and revisions by other hands have fallen out of fashion.
Boris Godunov comes closer to the status of a repertory piece than any other Russian opera, even Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, and is the most recorded Russian opera.
A crowd throngs by the high walls of the Novodevichy Monastery in Moscow. The boyar, Boris Godunov, has withdrawn to the monastery after the death of Tsar Fyodor, who did not leave an heir. That Boris will be elected to the throne is a foregone conclusion, but he makes a show of refusing the crown so that he is not suspected of wishing to seize power. At the order of a police officer, the people beg Godunov to accept election to the throne:
“Do not abandon us, Father,
Do not leave us helpness!”
But Shchelkalov, secretary of the Duma, announces that Boris is implacable.
Square in front of the Cathedral of the Assumption in the Kremlin. A majestic pealing of bells — Boris has given his consent and is being crowned. But Tsar Boris is not happy, he is weighed down by anxiety:
“My soul is heavy,
Some instinctive fear
With ominous foreboding
Rivets my heart...”
In the Kremlin the bells are pealing and the people break out again into acclamation.
Late at night. A cell in the Chudov Monastery. By the light of an icon-lamp, the wise monk Pimen is writing a truthful chronicle of the history of the Russian state. In his chronicle, Pimen reveals the secret of the murder, by Boris Godunov, of Tsarevitch Dimitri who had stood between him and the throne. Grigory, a young novice, sharing Pimen’s cell, wakes up. He listens to the holy man’s tale and a storm of anxieties, passions and vainglorious ambitions breaks into the peace of the night. The idea comes to Grigory of calling himself the Tsarevitch and of doing battle with Boris for the throne.
“Boris! Boris! All tremble before you,
No one dares to remind you
Of the fate of the hapless infant...
But meanwhile a hermit in a dark cell
Is writing a terrible denunciation against you.
And you shall not escape human judgment,
As you shall not escape the judgment of heaven!”
An inn near the Lithuanian frontier. Three vagabond monks, Varlaam, Missail and Grigory, have dropped in on the sprightly, merry mistress of the establishment. Varlaam, a drunkard and glutton, sings a song about the capture of Kazan. Grigory, questions the mistress of the inn on the best route to Lithuania. A police officer comes into the inn: on the Tsar’s orders he is searching for the runaway monk, Grigory Otrepiev. After an unsuccessful attempt to deflect the suspicion from himself, Grigory leaps through the window and makes good his escape.
The Tsar’s private apartment in the Kremlin. Tsarevitch Fyodor is looking at the “Book of the Big Drawing”, the first map of Russia. Ksenia, Boris’ daughter, is grieving before a portrait of her dead fiancй, the heir to the Danish throne. In an attempt to cheer her up, her old nurse tells her a funny story. Boris comes in and talks tenderly to his children, he is pleased to see his son gleaning wisdom from a book. But even here, with his children, Boris is tormented by anguish. Russia has been visited by a terrible famine. “People affected with the plague wander about like wild animals”, and the common people blame the Tsar for all their troubles: “in the squares they curse the name of Boris”. Something approaching a groan breaks out from deep down inside the Tsar:
“All around is darkness and impenetrable gloom,
O, for a fleeting glimpse of a ray of joy!..
Some secret anxiety,
One inconstantly expecting disaster!..”
The boyar, Shuisky, comes in, a cunning courtier and leader of a group of boyars with seditious intentions. He brings bad news: a pretender has raised his head in Lithuania, having taken the name of the Tsarevitch Dimitri. He has the support of the King of Poland, the Polish nobles and the Pope. Boris requires Shuisky to tell him the truth: is he certain that the babe who was killed in the town of Uglich was the Tsarevitch Dimitri? Shuisky, enjoying the Tsar’s torment, describes the deep wound on the Tsarevitch’s neck, and the angelic smile on his lips...
“It seemed, that in his cradle
He was peacefully sleeping...”
Shuisky departs, having aroused with new force the fears and agitation which grip Boris: the latter now thinks he sees an apparition of the murdered Dimitri.
A ball in the garden of Mnishek, the Governor of Sandomir. The Polish nobles are preparing to march on Moscow. They mean to place their protйgй on the Russian throne: Grigory, the runaway monk from the Chudov monastery, who has taken the name of the murdered Tsarevitch Dimitri. In this they will be helped by the ambitious plans of the Governor’s daughter, the beautiful Marina, who dreams of becoming the wife of the future king of Russia. The long-awaited (by the Pretender) rendezvous between Marina and Dimitri who is in love with her takes place. However, Marina’s abrupt and calculating speech, and her determination, which she makes no attempt to conceal, to sit on the Russian throne disconcert the Pretender for a brief moment. Realizing this, Marina wins him over by false protestations of her love for him. The Jesuit, Rangoni, celebrates his victory.
An early winter’s morning. A square in front of the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed in Moscow. A crowd of starving people are discussing the Pretender’s victories over the forces of Boris. A Simpleton comes running into the Square. Urchins surround him and take a kopek from him . The Tsar comes out of the Cathedral. “Bread, bread! Give the starving bread! Give us bread, father, for the sake of Christ!” cries the crowd. Goaded by the urchins, the Simpleton addresses the Tsar: “Order them to be killed, as you killed the little Tsarevitch”. Boris tells the boyars not to seize the Simpleton:
“Let him be! Pray for me, simple person...”
But the Simpleton replies:
“No, Boris! It can not be done!
How can one pray for a Tsar Herod?
Our Lady does not allow it...”
A clearing in the forest near Kromy. Night-time. The peasants, who are in revolt, lead in a Kromy boyar whom they have taken prisoner. They make fun of the boyar, reminding him of all their grudges:
“You trained us the right way,
In storms and bad weather, and when roads were impassable,
You exploited us,
And whipped us with a slender lash...”
The arrival of the monks, Varlaam and Missail, who denounce the sins of Boris, the regicide, stirs up the crowd’s anger even more. They break out into a threatening song:
“A dashing young force is on the rampage,
The Cossack blood is all aflame!
A great subversive power has risen from the depths...”
Jesuit priests, the Pretender’s emissaries, appear. But the arrival of these foreigners arouses the crowd’s indignation. The peasants drag the Jesuits into the forest to be hanged.
The Pretender, rides into the clearing, surrounded by troops, Polish gentry and Jesuits. He frees the Kromy boyar. By promising his favor and protection, the Pretender persuades the peasants to march on Moscow. The sky lights up with the glow of a fire. The alarm bell is rung. The Simpleton appears, looking round him in fear. His prophetic words of the new troubles that await the Russian people are spoken in anguish and pain:
“Flow, flow, bitter tears,
Cry, cry, Russian Orthodox soul!
Soon the enemy will come and darkness will fall,
Black, impenetrable darkness...”
The Granovitaya Chamber, in the Kremlin. A session of the Duma is in progress. The boyars are discussing what punishment should be meted out to the Pretender should he be caught. Shuisky appears. He describes the scene in the Tsar’s private apartment, when Boris drove off the apparition of the murdered Tsarevitch Dimitri. At this point, Boris comes running in, shouting: “Away, away, child!” Catching sight of the boyars, he regains his self-control and asks them for advice and help. At this, Shuisky suggests to the Tsar that he listen to a holy man who has come to tell them of a great secret. Boris agrees. Pimen is brought in. Pimen’s tale of the miraculous cure of a sick man at the grave of the murdered Tsarevitch Dimitri, in Uglich, is more than Boris can take and he falls senseless to the floor. Regaining consciousness, the dying Tsar gives his son advice on how to protect his kingdom:
“Don not trust the slander of the seditious boyars,
Keep a vigilant watch over their secret dealings with Lithuania,
Punish treason without mercy, without charity punish it,
Listen carefully to what the people say -
for their judgement is not hypocritical...”
To the pealing of the funeral bell and the chanting of a choir of monks, the Tsar dies. The shocked Tsarevitch Fyodor, having paid his last respects to his father, rises to his feet...And immediately, Shuisky who, unseen, had crept ahead of him, blocks his way to the throne.
© Bolshoi Theatre Synopsis
1 Teatralnaya ploschad (1 Theatre Square), Moscow, Russia
Bol'shaya Dmitrovka Street, 4/2, Moscow, Russia