'Boris Godunov' from Vienna Mussorgsky's sprawling drama Boris Godunov is actually an intimate, psychological portrait played out on an epic scale. It comes to us from the Vienna State Opera, with bass Ferruccio Furlanetto in the title role.
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Vienna State Opera on World of Opera -- 'Boris Godunov'

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Mussorgsky's 'Boris Godunov'

Mussorgsky's 'Boris Godunov'

From the Vienna State Opera

Vienna State Opera on World of Opera -- 'Boris Godunov'

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Boris (bass Ferruccio Furlanetto) is proclaimed Czar of all Russia, in Mussorgsky's sweeping drama Boris Gudonov, at the Vienna State Opera. Axel Zeininger/Wiener Staatsoper GmbH hide caption

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Axel Zeininger/Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto stars as the tormented title character in the Vienna State Opera's 2007 production of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.

Axel Zeininger/Wiener Staatsoper GmbH


At the end of Act 2, in the famous Clock Scene, Boris is haunted by visions of the murdered 10-year-old, Dmitri.

Vienna State Opera on World of Opera -- 'Boris Godunov'

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Ferruccio Furlanetto.Boris Godunov

Marian Talaba ................. Grigori

Nadia Krasteva .............. Marina

Jorma Silvasti .............. Shuisky

Robert Holl ......................Pimen

Ain Anger ................... Varlaam

Peter Jelosits .............. Missail

Falk Struckmann ......... Rangoni

Heinz Zednik ............. Holy Fool

Boaz Daniel ............. Shelkalov

Vienna State Opera Orchestra

and Chorus

Daniele Gatti, conductor

In the 1960s, the remains of the Russian czar Ivan the Terrible were exhumed and analyzed. After centuries of speculation about his death, the analysis revealed toxic levels of mercury. Some are convinced he was poisoned, and one of the first suspects was Boris Godunov, the title character in Mussorgsky's opera.

Ironically, it was not Boris' supposed poisoning of Ivan the Terrible that found its way into the opera house. It was a far more sensational crime that Boris was suspected of long before mercury was found in Ivan's remains – the murder of a 10-year-old boy.

Boris became czar in 1598, after the death of Ivan's son, Fyodor. But Ivan had another son, Dmitri, who to some would have seemed the true heir to the throne. Not surprisingly, when Dmitri died of a purportedly accidental throat-cutting at age 10, it was popularly assumed that Boris had ordered the killing. Modern historians tend to doubt the theory – but the stigma has stuck with Boris Godunov ever since.

Mussorgsky's opera was based on a play by Alexander Pushkin. In a nutshell, the story goes like this: Dmitri has been murdered by Boris Godunov, who is later crowned ruler of Russia. Meanwhile, an ambitious young monk named Grigori realizes that he's the same age as the murdered Dmitri would have been. He hatches a plan to take over Russia himself while pretending to be the old czar's son. As Grigori and his army march on Moscow, Boris is forced to confront his guilt over the long-ago murder.

Boris Godunov is one of several 19th-century Russian operas that tackle complex, historical themes. Mussorgky's own Khovanschina is another, along with Borodin's Prince Igor and Glinka's A Life for the Czar. But Boris is the only one that still has a consistent place in the repertory – perhaps because it's far more than a historical drama.

In many ways, the opera is a sort of musical psychoanalysis — with more than one subject. The title character is one of them. Few operas pry more deeply into any single character's private emotions. The opera also presents a psychological portrait of the Russian people, which comes through in Mussorgsky's extensive and powerful use of choruses. The people are also represented by the Holy Fool – a unique and eerie character who turns up in the final act, and is left on stage alone at the opera's bleak conclusion.

Here on World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a spectacular production of Boris Godunov from the Vienna State Opera, with the great Italian bass Ferrucio Furlanetto in the title role.

The Story of 'Boris Godunov'

As Boris Godunov, Ferruccio Furlanetto plays a powerful leader who can't overcome his own guilty conscience. Axel Zeininger/Wiener Staatsoper GmbH hide caption

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Axel Zeininger/Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

As Marina and Grigori, Nadia Krasteva and Marian Talaba play lovers — and co-conspirators — who hope to overthrow the czar. Photo: Axel Zeininger/Wiener Staatsoper GmbH hide caption

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Photo: Axel Zeininger/Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

PROLOGUE and ACT 1: Russian peasants are being goaded by police into demanding that Boris Godunov claim the vacant throne. At first, Boris feigns reluctance, but he eventually agrees to assume power. Still, as he acknowledges the cheers of the crowd at his lavish coronation, he feels uneasy.

The scene changes to a dark monastery cell, where the old monk Pimen is writing a history of Russia. His novice Grigori 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. Grigori 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 Grigori, who's in disguise. Grigori is on his way to Poland, to raise an army against Boris. When police arrive with a warrant for his arrest, Grigori escapes through a window.

ACT 2: Boris is in his study in the czar's palace. He comforts his bereaved daughter Xenia, who has lost her fiance, 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 Shuisky, 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 3:At the castle of Sandomir in Poland, we find that Boris isn't the only ruthlessly ambitious character in the opera. Enter Princess Marina. She knows about Grigori'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, Grigori will easily fall under her spell. Then the Jesuit can realize his own dream of bringing Russia under the dominion of Rome. Marina and Grigori swear allegiance to each other, with Rangoni standing silently in the shadows, watching.

ACT 4:Boris emerges from the Cathedral of St. Basil, in Moscow. A Simpleton, or 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, Grigori, and orders his arrest. Shuisky 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 a forest, revolutionary peasants harass a nobleman and two Jesuits. Grigori, now being hailed as Dmitri, passes by in triumph with his army, headed for Moscow. When everyone has gone, the Holy Fool is left alone to lament Russia's fate, and the opera ends.