Boris Godunov: Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown

Sad Tsar

Rene Pape as Boris Godunov, photo by Nick Heavican courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

MetOpera live in HD transmitted the opera Boris Godunov live from the Metropolitan Opera stage in New York to movie theaters around the world on Saturday, October 23.  The audience was anticipating something great after all the positive press this production has garnered, especially on the subject of the German basso René Pape who played Boris. We were not to be disappointed.

 Boris Godunov opens with a Prologue: a great crowd has gathered in Moscow and the people are gossiping, worrying, and being ordered around by officials. The music from their voices and the pit is by turns majestic, sorrowful, moody, and bold.  A Holy Fool roams in the crowd. People go out of their way not to hurt him or deprive him of his voice. Boris looks into his eyes for a spiritual secret he might have. Is he the tortured soul of Russia? 

 The opera tells the story of Tsar Boris Godunov who is wracked with guilt about his part in the murder of the Tsarevich Dimitry (the rightful successor to Ivan the Terrible). In the absence of a living heir, Boris is persuaded to be the new tsar, but is filled with trepidation. The coronation takes place.

Bocharov's design for the coronation scene (1874)

 The action moves to a monastery where the old monk Pimen is recording the important events that have occurred in his lifetime to a history of Russia. He writes in a huge oversize book that lies on the floor (this symbol of Russia’s history turns up in Boris’s chamber later). The novice Grigory asks to be told the story of Dimitry’s murder. Pimen observes that, had he lived, the tsarevich (prince) would have been Grigory’s age. This gives Grigory an idea.

 We next see the widower Boris at home with his two children. He is close and easy-going with them and they adore him. His son studies the oversize history book and huge maps that are strewn across the floor. Then, he gets the news that someone pretending to be Dimitry is planning to expose his crime and try to overthrow him. Boris is shaken and imagines he sees a ghost of Dimitry.

 Act III is the frequently cut Polish Act.  For this production it was included. We find Grigory in Poland hoping to gather allies for his cause (claiming to be Dimitry and wresting the crown of Russia away from Boris) as well as win the hand of the Polish Princess Marina. They scheme and the ambitious Marina is persuaded. Rangoni, a corrupt Jesuit priest, helps Marina see what can be gained by throwing in with Grigory.

Coronation of Tsar Boris Godunov, photo by Nick Heavican courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

Back in Moscow in Act IV, we have another crowd scene where the peasants discuss the rumors and wonder whether the Tsarevich Dimitry is really still alive, and what the impact of a political upset with have on them. The boyars (a combination thug and senator) meet and agree to a death sentence for the false Dimitry.  Boris then enters appearing to be mad and speaking aloud to the ghost of Dimitry, “Begone, child!” He is told an old man has come and wants an audience with Boris who agrees to see him. It is Pimen who tells Boris of a blind man visiting the grave of Dimitry and regaining his sight. This is the last straw for the haunted patriarch: he calls for his son, gives some final advice and dies.

Dimitry, Marina and an army are joined by some Russian peasants on a march to Moscow. Only the Holy Fool remains, lamenting the fate of Russia.

From the first scene of this epic opera, you know you are in foreign, exotic territory from the sounds coming from the orchestra and chorus. The minor pentatonic musical scale signals that you that you are in the East, and that the people are tinged with melancholy. The huge (120 singers) chorus delivers a wave of undulating sound, imparting a mood of restlessness as the people wait to see what will happen.

 The chorus represents the Russian people who are many but powerless. They produce a massive sound, but they are poor, helpless, and hungry and look to a cruel leadership for guidance and approval. They are in turn complaining, begging, laughing, or arguing. They are truly a character in the opera.

 René Pape embodies the role of Boris with his imperial demeanor and powerful sound. His strong, sure, and beautifully toned voice reassures the people. He communicates his benevolence with strength, but is gentle with his children and terrified when he sees ghosts. Each of these different moods is enacted with assurance, and we believe him. Pape is a true singing actor, a great Boris.

Marina, the Polish princess with a thirst for power and the only woman in the opera, is sung by Ekaterina Semenchuk. Her rock solid mezzo-soprano voice was smoky-grey in color and not to be toyed with. All three characters are in the Polish Act are schemers: Marina, the false Dimitry, and the power-hungry and profane priest. The tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko sang Dimitry with great expression and a dramatic and nimble sound. The priest was Evgeny Nikitin and was superbly slimy in his black cassock and red gloves.

Valery Gergiev, conductor

There was even a Russian in the pit. Valery Gergiev led the large orchestra with all the passion, polish, and power at his talented command. He is known as a charismatic and hardworking conductor, always ready to put Russian music and operas in the best light possible.

 Boris Godunov was composed by Modest Mussorgsky in 1869, and then extensively revised in 1872 (adding the Polish scene – thus a woman’s role to the opera – among other changes). After his death in 1881 his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and later Dmitri Shostakovich also added revisions. There are any number of variations of the opera because of all the revisions, but today some combination of the original Mussorgsky creation is favored. The story was taken from a play by the same name written by Alexander Pushkin.


Detail from Ilya Repin's celebrated portrait of Modest Mussorgsky, painted March 2-5, 1881, only a few days before the composer's death

Mussorgsky and Pushkin were two short-lived Russian artists who never knew each other because they lived in different times. Mussorgsky died from alcoholism at age 42 in 1881 and Pushkin died in 1837 from the wounds he received in a duel. He was 38.

I found Boris Godunov very moving and I would urge anyone to go and see the encore screening which will be on November 10. Check this website for movie times and places:

The title quotation is from Shakespeare:   Henry IV, Part 2, Act III, Scene 1


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