Mussorgsky’s masterpiece is an opera with a unique history. Never completed, by the composer, it has undergone numerous different versions, obtaining a premiere on Jan. 27, 1874. Other famous composers have even had their day with the work, offering up their own revisions (read more below).
It has been the subject of much study and debate, and for many, is considered the greatest of all Russian operas, topping even Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.”
Short Plot Summary
A crowd is gathered outside a monastery where the regent Boris Godunov is retired. The police office Nikitich demands that the crowd ask Boris to take the throne. The secretary of the Duma Andrey Shchelkalov tells the people that Boris has refused the throne.
In the second scene, Boris has accepted the throne. While he senses some negative foreboding, he prays for God’s blessing and invites the people to a grand feast.
Pimen, a monk, writes a chronicle of Russian history and converses with the young novice Grigoriy who is upset that he has not had a life of adventure and has been stuck being a monk. He discovers that he and the Tsarevich had a similar age and decides to pose as the Pretender to the throne.
Grigory prepares to head for the Lithuanian border but escapes police officers looking for him.
Boris confronts Prince Shuysky for betraying, but instead learns of a pretender arriving from Lithuania to claim the throne of Russia. Shuysky reminds Boris of the scene of Dmitriy’s death, leaving the Tsar to hallucinate.
The Pretender meets with his lover Marina and asks her to be his Tsaritsa and they head together to claim the throne.
The people rally around Grigoriy as the rightful heir. The people beg for bread from Boris and his people while the yuródivïy laments the fate of Russia.
In a session of the Duma, the boyars vote on executing the Pretender and his followers. Boris, traumatized by the ghost of the Tsarevich, enters to the surprise of all those assembled. Boris admits that he is dying and prays for God to bless his children.
Dmitriy arrives to thunderous ovations and all follow him to claim his throne. Only the yuródivïy remains, lamenting the death of Russia.
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Watch and Listen
Here is a classic performance of the opera featuring Yevgeny Nestrenko from 1978 in Moscow.