Musical Psychoanalysis: 'Boris Godunov' The quintessential Russian opera, Boris Godunov explores a centuries-old murder mystery, while probing the psyche of its tormented title character.
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Musical Psychoanalysis: 'Boris Godunov'

Mussorgsky's Epic from Houston Grand Opera


In the famous "Clock Scene," a delusional Boris Godunov has visions of Dmitri, the child prince he is suspected of murdering. It's sung here by bass Nicolai Ghiarov, from a 1970 recording of the complete opera led by Herbert von Karajan.

"Clock Scene" from "Boris Godunov"

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A Vintage Boris

Here's another version of the "Clock Scene," this time sung in 1931 by one of the greatest basses of all time, Feodor Chaliapin.

Chaliapin Sings the "Clock Scene"

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Boris Godunov (bass Samuel Ramey) is surrounded by his starving people in Houston Grand Opera's production of Mussorgsky's epic. Ted Washington/Houston Grand Opera hide caption

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Ted Washington/Houston Grand Opera

In the 1960s, the remains of the Russian czar Ivan the Terrible were exhumed for analysis and toxic levels of mercury were discovered. Some concluded that the czar was poisoned — and the prime suspect was the tormented title character in Modeste Mussorgsky's opera, Boris Godunov.

Still, while the assassination of Ivan the Terrible would make for a great opera, Mussorgsky's drama tells a different, and even more sensational story — about Boris Godunov's supposed 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 some considered the true heir to the throne. Not surprisingly, when Dmitri died of a purportedly accidental throat-cutting at age 10, it was rumored 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 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 Godunov is the only one that still has a consistent place in the repertory – perhaps because it's far more than a straightforward, historical drama.

In many ways, the opera is a sort of musical psychoanalysis — with more than one subject. One subject is Boris himself, and few operas pry more deeply into any single character's private emotions. But the opera also presents a psychological portrait of the Russian people, which comes through in Mussorgsky's extensive and powerful use of choruses.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a lush production of Boris Godunov featuring the great, American bass Samuel Ramey in the title role.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story of 'Boris Godunov'

Varlaam (Robert Pomakov) is hoisted by friends during a night of drunken revelry. Ted Washington/Houston Grand Opera hide caption

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Ted Washington/Houston Grand Opera

Boris (Samuel Ramey, left) accuses Prince Shuysky (Joseph Evans) of treason. Ted Washington/Houston Grand Opera hide caption

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Ted Washington/Houston Grand Opera


  • Samuel Ramey ...... Boris Godunov
  • Stefan Margita ............Grigory
  • Raymond Aceto ..............Pimen
  • Joseph Evans ..... Prince Shuysky
  • Robert Pomakov ... Varlaam/Shchelkalov
  • Jon Kolbet ...................Holy Fool
  • Taylor Rawley ................ Fyodor
  • Heidi Stober ......................Xenia
  • Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus
  • Tugan Sokhiev, conductor

Mussorgsky's opera has a prologue followed by four acts. In many modern productions the entire third act is omitted, along with part of the fourth, and that's the case in Houston Grand Opera's production.

In the PROLOGUE, Russian peasants are goaded by police into demanding that Boris Godunov claim the vacant throne. At first Boris seems reluctant, but he agrees to assume power. Still, as he acknowledges the cheers of the crowd at his coronation, he feels uneasy.

As ACT ONE opens, five years have passed. Boris has struggled to rule in the face of famine and unpopularity. In a dark monastery cell, an old monk named Pimen is writing the history of Russia. His novice Grigori starts asking about the dead prince Dmitri. Pimen tells him that Boris ordered the boy's murder in order to consolidate power. Grigori also learns that he is the same age Dmitri would have been had the prince lived.

The scene changes to a tavern on the Lithuanian border. The innkeeper welcomes three guests: two drunken friars, Varlaam and Missail, and Grigori, who's in disguise and posing as Dmitri. Grigori is on his way to Poland to raise an army against Boris. When police arrive with a warrant for his arrest, Grigori barely manages to escape.

ACT TWO begins with Boris in his study at the czar's palace. He comforts his bereaved daughter Xenia, who has lost her fiance, and then joins his son Fyodor in a geography lesson — teaching him about the nation he will one day rule.

Boris then receives his adviser, the scheming Shuysky. He tells the czar about an insurrection forming in Poland, led by someone claiming to be Dmitri. Hearing this news, and already tormented by a guilty conscience, Boris becomes delusional. In one of the opera's most vivid passages, known as the "Clock Scene," Boris hallucinates — seeing gruesome visions of the murdered child. Terrified, he collapses, unaware that Shuysky is secretly watching him.

ACT THREE — the fourth act in the opera's original version — opens in Moscow, outside the Cathedral of St. Basil. As Boris comes out of the church he confronts a simpleton, or holy fool, who has been teased and robbed by a group of children. The simpleton asks Boris to kill the children — just as he killed Dmitri. Boris protects the deranged man and then asks for his prayers. The simpleton refuses, saying he cannot pray for a murderer.

The final scene takes place in a palace hall, inside the Kremlin, where the council announces an official condemnation of the false Dmitri. Shuysky enters and expresses concern for Boris's state of mind, and he's is followed by the Tsar himself, who is obviously disturbed. Shuysky then produces the monk Pimen, who tells them that a blind shepherd has miraculously regained his sight while visiting Dmitri's tomb.

Boris can stand no more and calls for his son. He warns Fyodor to beware of the officials' plots, and instructs him to protect his sister Zenia and the Russian people. As bells toll, Boris begs God for mercy, and dies.

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