Boris Godunov synopsis
Music by Modest Musorgsky
Libretto by the composer after Pushkin
First performed: 1874
Outside the Novodevichy Monastery near Moscow
While Boris Godunov is in the monastery, the people have been ordered to gather outside to urge him to become Russia’s new tsar. Shchelkalov, secretary to the Boyars' Council, emerges from the monastery to report that Boris still refuses to do so. A procession of blind pilgrims passes by, praying for Russia’s salvation. A priest tells the people to reassemble at the Kremlin the next day to try once again to persuade Boris to accept the throne.
A square in the Moscow Kremlin
Boris is crowned tsar, to general acclaim. He is filled with foreboding.
Pimen's cell in the Chudov Monastery
Under Boris's rule, Russia has been plagued by famine and unrest. Pimen, a monk, is writing the final chapter of his chronicle of Russian history. The young novice Grigory is troubled by dreams of glory. He begs Pimen to tell him about the past. Pimen recounts how he witnessed the supposed murder, on Boris’s orders, of Dmitry, the child who was heir to the throne: he would have been the same age as Grigory. Pimen expresses the hope that after his death Grigory will continue the chronicle. Alone, Grigory swears to avenge Boris’s crime by assuming the role of Dmitry himself.
Near the Lithuanian border
Grigory has left the monastery and is on his way to Poland where, as the Pretender Dmitry, he hopes to raise an army against Boris. Learning of his escape, Prince Vasily Shuisky has ordered Grigory's capture before he can leave the country. To avoid suspicion, Grigory is travelling in the company of a pair of vagabond monks, Varlaam and Misail. At an inn, the drunken Varlaam sings of the Tartars' defeat of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Border guards arrive in search of Grigory. He offers to read the arrest warrant, but substitutes a description of Varlaam for his own. The guards seize Varlaam and Grigory escapes.
The Tsar's Children
The Tsar's apartments in the Kremlin
Boris's daughter Xenia is weeping, because the prince she was to have married has been killed in battle. While the Tsarevich Fyodor studies a map of Russia, Xenia's nurse tries to console her. Boris arrives and he, too, offers Xenia words of comfort, then encourages Fyodor to familiarize himself with the lands he will one day inherit. Boris is preoccupied with the troubles assailing Russia, which he feels powerless to alleviate, and is obsessed by visions of the murdered Dmitry. Shuisky arrives with news that a Pretender to the throne, claiming to be Dmitry, is mobilizing support in Poland for a march on Moscow. Boris makes Shuisky describe the details of Dmitry's death. Torn between guilt and fear that the child might in fact have survived, Boris collapses.
Outside the Cathedral of St Basil, Moscow
Boris, who has brought the Orthodox Church under his control, is attending a service in the cathedral. Outside, the people comment on the denunciation of Grigory as a heretic and argue whether or not he is Dmitry, the true Tsar. A group of children torment the simpleton and steal his money. He appeals to Boris to have the children murdered like Dmitry. Boris stops Shuisky from having the simpleton beaten. When Boris asks the simpleton to pray for him, he replies that he cannot pray for a 'Tsar Herod'.
A hall in the Moscow Kremlin
Boris has summoned the Boyars' Council to emergency session, to decide how to counter the threat of the Pretender. Shuisky reports that Boris has fallen prey to fearful imaginings. Boris appears, tormented by thoughts of the murdered child. Shuisky has Pimen brought in, and the monk tells of an old and blind shepherd who has been miraculously cured while visiting Dmitry's tomb. The boyars retire when Boris begs to be left alone with his son. He entrusts to Fyodor the throne of Russia and the protection of Xenia, warning him against his enemies. As he dies, Boris begs God for forgiveness.
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