Pushkin starts his play with two boyars (Russian nobles) impatiently wishing Boris will accept the crown & quit turning it down—they suspect he’s only doing this for show. In Mussorgsky’s prologue (a scene that offended the royal family when they saw the opera) guards are threatening commoners with the whip if they don’t loudly pray for Boris to take the crown. He does, of course, after several days, & we first see him greeted with hymns of praise (“As the sun is the glory of heaven, Tsar Boris is Russia’s glory!”) & announcing a celebratory feast to which everyone will be invited, from lowest to highest. The Kremlin bells are ringing throughout the scene, not unambiguously happily.
Act One begins in a monastic cell where an aged monk is almost done writing a chronicle of Russia in his lifetime. His name is Pimen, & the one part of his history he has yet to complete is the tale of how Boris Godunov had the heir to the throne, the boy Dmitri, murdered. His slow rich voice blends with the wee-hours chanting of the choir. A younger monk sits up suddenly, scared awake from a dream of falling. This is Grigori, who Pimen remarks is about the age the dead Tsarevich would be had he lived. After Pimen leaves to join the communal prayer, Grigori curses Boris & predicts the approach of vengeance on his crimes.
Shift to an inn on the Lithuanian frontier. The hostess admits two itinerant priests, Varlaam & Misail, who we gather wander from inn to inn bumming drinks & staying sloshed. Grigori accompanies them. Varlaam tells a war story (new to the opera) about Ivan the Terrible’s victory over the Mongols at Kazan. Before long police show up looking for Grigori, whom they call an escaped heretic. They have a warrant none of them can read. Grigori reads it aloud & changes the description to fit Varlaam, who snatches it away & laboriously sounds out the actual description. Everyone realizes who Grigori is too late to stop him leaping out the window & rushing by backroads for the border.
Act Two: the Kremlin, but not a fancy throne room, the Tsar’s private apartments, where his son & daughter, Fyodor & Xenya, chat with their nurse. Xenya grieves for her dead fiancee & the worldly-wise nurse makes fun of her & forecasts oblivion & new love. Fyodor & the nurse sing silly songs to cheer her up. Boris enters & finds Fyodor studying a huge map of Russia—“One day it will all be yours!” A boyar brings word of a secret meeting between Prince Shuisky (a character treated in more depth in the play) & an envoy from Lithuania, Russia’s ancient enemy. Boris suspects treason, but Shuisky himself soon arrives & transmits the envoy’s news: that a pretender to the throne has arisen, supplied with arms & soldiers by Poland, calling himself Dmitri. Boris is shaken & asks Shuisky if he’s sure the young Tsarevich really died. Shuisky convinces him … but on his departure, Boris is haunted by a vision of the bloody child: “Go away, child! Go! It wasn’t me!” as urgent bells chime through the castle. He tries to pray, but like Claudius in Hamlet, can’t find anything to say.
Act Three is the most boring for me, though I like Grigori/False Dmitri. It features his political & psychological sparrings with his Polish/Lithuanian hosts, especially the princess Marina, whom he loves. Marina has been instructed to give herself to Dmitri by her Jesuit confessor, who hopes through this union to convert Russia to Catholic allegiance. She rebels of course, wanting to love whom she wishes, but the Jesuit cows her with threats of hellfire. Dmitri wants Marina to love him as a man (in the play he even confesses his identity to her) but she tells him she can only be bride to the Tsar of Moscow. He imperiously threatens to reject her when he takes the throne, & she surrenders her heart. Both scenes show her as a defeated woman whose willfulness is useless. Though Mussorgsky beefed up her role after reviewers complained about the lack of strong females, she isn’t strong at all, just proud & cranky.
(The historical False Dmitri—the First: there was a second—seems to have been much more selfish, hedonistic, & under the sway of his foreign backers than Mussorgsky’s character, who genuinely cares about the welfare of Russia.)
The two scenes of Act Four were switched by Rimsky-Korsakov. The first scene is the final scene in Mussorgsky’s original libretto. It’s another showcase for the common people the opera opened with, forced to plead that Boris become Tsar. Now the country is in chaos (really, this is only explained by Boris’ death, which in this version hasn’t happened yet; the opera moves forward a famine which had ended well before the death of Boris, & implies that there was general suffering in Russia during his reign, which is false). The people are rioting, starving, lost without their “Little Father” the Tsar. They find one of Boris’ boyars & install him on an improvised throne with improvised crown & sceptre—oddly reminiscent of the mockery of Christ by the Roman soldiers—& sing him an angry hymn of praise that echoes the more sincere one in the Prologue. This is all prelude to lynching the boyar. Varlaam & Missail from the inn sequence show up & egg them on, but everyone’s distracted suddenly by the appearance of two Catholic priests chanting Latin, which sounds like horrid animal screeching to the peasants. They collar the priests & prepare to string them up too … when Dmitri arrives at the head of his army.
The music that plays here is my favorite in the whole opera. Horns & woodwinds take the melody (I vastly prefer brass to strings), a fresh, hopeful brisk trot. I took four semesters of Russian history as a History major, & to anyone who knows the ghastly misery about to descend on the country for the next decade, the joyous prancing march is darkly ironic. Dmitri pauses to give a brief “On to Moscow!” speech, receives the obeisance of the boyar (meet the new boss, same as the old boss), & rides off again followed by the crowd of people, the spared priests singing Latin hosannas.
The act is framed by two verses of a lament sung by perhaps the most poignant character, a pious simpleton. He sees, in his blessed innocence, what’s coming down the road for Russia. Because this used to be the last scene, the closing music has the length & force of a coda.
But in Rimsky’s order the opera returns to Boris’ palace & the council of boyars, crazy as a beehive poked with a stick. Shuisky (probably hedging his own bets: he was briefly Tsar) tells how he witnessed one of Boris’ murdered-child nightmares … at which Boris enters, right in the midst of one. Everyone knows the jig is up now. Thinking it’ll help Boris recover his senses, Shuisky brings in Pimen to confirm Dmitri’s death. (On my record Christoff impressively distinguishes between the voices of Boris & Pimen.) Pimen sings about a man blind from childhood who recovered his sight by praying at the Tsarevich’s tomb, in some of the loveliest poetry in the opera (Pushkin’s): “even my dreams contained only sounds, not things or people.” (In the play, the Patriarch of Moscow tells this story. Here, the reintroduction of Pimen reminds us that he’s writing a chronicle that’ll indict Boris.) Contrary to Shuisky’s intention (?), the tale pushes Boris over the edge & he has some kind of apoplexy, screaming for air & light. I always thought the news that people were being healed by the Tsarevich finally confirmed his feeling that even heaven was against him. Anyway, he knows he’s dying & summons his son (who also held the throne for a tiny while). “Goodbye my son, I die” is the most familiar aria from the opera. It’s unaccompanied, so the melody is Mussorgsky’s. The speech is full of submission, surrender & tenderness … but suddenly Boris stands up from his throne & shouts out “I am still Tsar! Tsar!” … before finally collapsing. A death chant rises in the background & the opera ends with the boyars almost inaudibly whispering “He’s dead.”
(For a long time I wondered whether Camus was referencing this scene when he had Caligula scream “I’m still alive!” while he’s being stabbed. Now I think it may be the other way around, since those actually were Caligula’s last words.)
Dmitri’s march, from Act IV, Scene 1: