Musical Psychoanalysis: Mussorgsky's 'Boris Godunov'

The Story of "Boris Godunov”

Mussorgsky's opera consists of a Prologue and four acts. The story is set in Russia and Poland between the years 1598 and 1605. In the PROLOGUE, Russian peasants are being goaded by police into demanding that Boris Godunov claim the vacant throne. At first, Boris pretends to be reluctant, but he finally agrees to assume power. Still, as he acknowledges the cheers of the crowd, he feels uneasy.

ACT ONE takes place six years later. It begins in a dark monastery cell, where the old monk Pimen is writing a history of Russia. His novice Grigory asks about the dead Dmitri, and Pimen tells him that Boris ordered the murder of the boy so that he could take over as czar himself. Grigory realizes that he and Dmitri would have been the same age, had Dmitri lived.

On the Lithuanian border, an innkeeper welcomes three guests: two drunken friars, Varlaam and Missail, and Grigory, who's in disguise. Grigory is on his way to Poland, to raise an army against Boris. When police arrive with a warrant for his arrest, Grigory escapes through a window.

In ACT TWO Boris is in his study in the czar's palace. He comforts his bereaved daughter Xenia, who has lost her fiancé, and joins his son Fyodor in a geography lesson. Boris also reflects, warily, on the ultimate power he has finally achieved. His scheming adviser, Prince Shuysky, reports a Polish-based insurrection led by someone claiming to be Dmitri. This news, combined with Boris' guilty conscience, drives him to hallucinations. In the famous Clock Scene, he imagines he sees the ghost of the dead Dmitri. Fearing the worst, Boris orders the border between Russia and Poland to be closed.

ACT THREE takes place at the castle of Sandomir in Poland, where we find that Boris isn't the only ruthlessly ambitious character in the opera. Enter Princess Marina. She knows about Grigory's plans to conquer Russia, and she wants to get in on the act. If she joins forces with him, she can realize her dream of becoming czarina.

A Jesuit named Rangoni counsels her to use a time-honored battle plan: seduction. With her beauty, Rangoni says, Grigory will easily fall under her spell -- and with that that done, the Jesuit can realize his own dream of bringing Russia under the dominion of Rome. Marina and Grigory swear allegiance to each other, with Rangoni standing silently in the shadows, watching.

As ACT FOUR begins, Boris emerges from the Cathedral of St. Basil, in Moscow. A simpleton, known as the Holy Fool, has been teased and robbed by a group of children. He asks Boris to kill them -- saying it should be done in the same way the czar killed Dmitri. Boris protects the deranged man and then asks the Holy Fool to pray for him. The Fool refuses, saying he cannot pray for a murderer.

Meanwhile, the Council denounces the Pretender, Grigory, and orders his arrest. Shuysky tells them that Boris is going mad, and the czar himself staggers in, claiming innocence for Dmitri's death. The monk Pimen tells the story of a blind shepherd who was healed at Dmitri's grave. Boris sees this as a bad omen. He sends for his son, names him as heir to the throne, and bids him farewell. As bells toll, Boris falls dying, begging God for mercy.

In the final scene, Grigory, hailed by his followers, passes through a forest on his way to Moscow. Then, alone onstage, the Holy Fool laments Russia's fate, and the opera ends.