Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is straight off the pages of Russian history so if you pay attention, you’ll be even smarter than you already are.
This one comes out of the gate with everything I love about Russian opera: traditional melodies, bells, heaps of choruses and the sound of the Russian language. Admit it, you loved the soundtrack to Hunt for Red October. This is kind of like that, but way longer. It’s the story of Boris Godunov, obviously, who became Tsar when someone had Ivan the Terrible’s heir, Dmitry, killed as a baby. We’re not saying who.
The opera opens with people being forced to beg Boris to be their new tsar – as if they have a choice. You can almost stop listening there, except the coronation scene is completely fabulous. It’s chorus and bells and mayhem and people singing in Russian and a tsar who’s feeling just a touch guilty about how he got there – even if he didn’t kill baby Dmitry himself.
And that’s just the freakin PROLOGUE.
In act one, which happens a good 15 minutes into the opera, we get a Russian history lesson from an old monk who tells Grigory about Ivan the Terrible. Grigory asks how old Dmitry would be, had he lived (Dmitry being Ivan’s son and heir to the throne). “He would be roughly the same age as you, and he would be tsar!” the monk answers. That’s the revolver left on the mantel in scene one.
Anastasia Romanov wasn’t the first one to show up after she was dead. It’s a shame Boris wasn’t picked up by Disney. In the Dmitry version of Anastasia, there’s a snakey prince (Prince Shuysky) who counsels the tsar and a really ewky priest (Rangoni), perfect villains.
The beginning of scene 2 sounds like Night on Bald Mountain, but it’s an inn near the Lithuanian border. Grigory – the fake Dmitry – is trying to get across the border because they’re onto his tricks and think it would be a good idea to hang him back home. He’s travelling with two tramps, who are dressed as monks.
The scene at the inn goes on forever, so if you’re doing something else while listening and are afraid of losing your place, don’t worry. They’ll still be at the inn when you get back.
When the illiterate guards show up looking for the excommunicated monk, said excommunicated monk offers to read the arrest warrant for them. When he gets to the description of the felon, he instead describes one fellow travellers, Varlaam.
You can tell when he’s trying to fool the guards because of the sneaky string accompaniment. About halfway through, Varlaam realizes he’s getting set up and reads it for himself – you hear him haltingly build up to the realization that Grigory is their guy.
Grigory jumps out a window and escapes, ending the scene.
Then we’re in the royal apartments with Boris’ kids – Xenia and Fyodor – and their nurse. Xenia is sad and they sing a song to cheer her – ripping off Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in the process.
Then there’s some character development where we watch Boris with his kids and we kind of have to like him at least a little.
But then the Prince Shuysky shows up and describes what Dmitry’s corpse looked like at the church in Uglich. It’s graphic and pretty creepy and Boris is understandably unnerved. In fact, Boris flips completely out. Left alone Boris hallucinates the dead would-be-child tsar.
But onto happier things!
We go now to Poland and Princess Marina. She’s a piece of work. Grigory/Dmitry is in love with her and she’s in love with the thought of being Marina the Tsarina. She doesn’t much care if he’s the real Dmitry or not.
In fact, it’s pretty clear they know he’s a fake, since Rangoni refers to him as The Pretender. He tells her (he’s a priest, remember) to seduce him and “when at your wondrous feet in wordless ecstasy he awaits your command, demand his oath to promote the faith!”
Marina and the fake Dmitry go on for a while, which is annoying since she wasn’t even supposed to be in this opera. In A Night at the Opera, Sir Denis Forman says
In the Moscow of the 1860s opera was a state monopoly. Anyone who wanted to get an opera produced had to submit it to a selection committee who were of course state censors as well as judges of merit. A similar committee today would probably consist of nominees of the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, the departments of Environment, Trade, Education and several others, and god knows which new operas, if any, would reach the stage. After a long delay Boris was turned down because it had no part for a leading female. This was indeed true of the original version, so musorgsky set about writing a new act, about the encounter between Marina and Dmitry.
We finally get back to Moscow in Act 4. They are deciding what to do with the fake Dmitry and agree he should be boiled and left on a stake as an example. The Shuysky arrives and tells them that he noticed Boris isn’t quite himself. In fact, he seemed to be trying to shoo away a child ghost.
Sure enough, Boris walks in, trying to shoo away the child ghost of Dmitry – the real and dead one, not the pretend, excommunicated monk one. It’s very Edgar Alan Poe, a la Telltale Heart.
Pretty much everyone in this scene is charged with pushing Boris over the edge. It’s a great scene. They even play the death bells before he’s dead.
But it’s not over yet!
There’s a kerfluffle in the forest, with various people getting dragged off to be hanged. Dmitry arrives – apparently unaware that they want to boil him and stick him on a skewer in front of the Kremlin. The scene in the forest goes on for an astonishingly long time, considering that the main character is already dead. It’s worth it though because there’s extra chorus.
Don’t be fooled by the seeming cheerfulness of Dmitry’s arrival. The opera ends with the village idiot (who we all know is the guy with the goods) going on about years of locusts, blood and tears ahead for Russia. It’s, you know, Russian. It’s not supposed to be cheery.