Online opera guide and synopsis to Mussorgsky’s BORIS GODUNOV

With Boris Godunov, Mussorgsky wrote a unique opera, a monolith of opera history. The most Russian of all operas inspires with great music and most fascinating scenes. Many of his musical ideas became decades later the inspiration for a new generation of artists.



Overview and quick access






Act I

Act II


Act IV



Nu shtozh vy (Wake up there! Have you frozen into statues?) Introduction

Na kovo ty nas pokidaesh (Why forsake us and leave us helpless) Choir

Slava tebyé (Glory to thee our lord) Pilgrim Choir

Da zdravstvuet!! (Long live our Tsar / Coronation scene) Coronation scene

Skorbit dusha (The soul grieves) Boris Monolog Coronation

Uk tyazhelo (Oh, give me air! I suffocate) Mad scene / Clock chimney scene

Kak vo gorde (By the walls of Kazan the mighty fortress) The drinking song of the mendicant

O tsarjevich, umolyayu, nye klyani (O tsarevich, I implore you) Garden Duet

Proschay moy syn, umirayu Farewell, my son, I am dying Boris Farewell scene

Zvon! Pogrebal’ny zvon! Hark! (Tis the knell of death) Death scene



Recording recommendation

Recording recommendation




1874, Saint Petersburg


Salomon Hermann Mosenthal based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor

The main roles

Boris Godunov, Tsar of Russia (bass) - Shtshelkalov, Secretary of the Duma (baritone) - Pimen, Monk (Bass) - Grigori / Dmitri, Monk and later the false Tsarevich (tenor) – Marina, Daughter of a Polish prince (soprano) – Mr. Reich, her husband (bass) - Fenton, penniless student (tenor) - Rangoni, Jesuit and counselor of Marina (baritone) - Tolpan, an imbecile (tenor)

Recording Recommendation

DECCA, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Alexey Maslennikov, Martti Talvela, Ludovico Spiess, Galina Vishnevskaya, Zoltan Kelemen, Anton Diakov conducted by Herbert von Karjan and the Vienna State Opera Chorus and Orchestra.




Roles and Synopsis







The “Russian National Opera

The “Russian five” (“Group of Five”) and their goal of promoting national Russian music is well known among music lovers. Like most of the members, Mussorgsky was a musician on the sideline and had a full-time job. This had a dramatic consequence for Boris Godunov. Mussorgsky was, along with Tchaikovsky, the most gifted musician Russia has ever had, but his lack of formal music education limited him at times and he often had to ask his patron and friend Rimsky-Korsakoff for advice. Rimsky-Korsakoff later revised the opera after Mussorgsky’s early death (see below).

Mussorgsky tried to achieve the Russian element through the harmonies, the choirs, and the realism of the performance and language. Pushkin’s “Boris Godunov” served as a basis , which he used 1:1 wherever possible.


The people and the choir

The people and, musically speaking, the choir became a defining element of this opera. With the Russian melodies and the harmonies of the sacred Orthodox music it still touches the Russian soul to this day and the work became the epitome of Russian opera.

The demands on the choir are considerable. The choir often acts like acting persons and there are some polyphonic passages which are partly even dialogically arranged and therefore require an uncanny precision.


Sources and libretto

Pushkin finished his work in 1825, but it was not published until 40 years later for reasons of censorship. Pushkin did not write a classic novel but 24 scenes, of which Mussorgsky used 7-9 scenes (depending on the chosen version of the opera). In the first version Mussorgski selected 7 scenes in which the role of the main character was in the foreground, with the aim of creating a psychological portrait of Boris Godunov.

Mussorgski took care of the libretto himself, he took many of the passages literally and kept the chosen scenes close to the original. The opera thus belongs to the genre of the classical “literary opera”.


The historical background

The historical background is not central to understanding the opera, but it is nevertheless very exciting. Pushkin based the story on Kasamin’s “History of the Russian Empire” and thus covers an important span of history.

After the death of Ivan the Terrible, the tsarist empire was in a desolate state. His unstable son Fyodor left the affairs of state to the boyar Boris Godunov. The second son of Ivan the Terrible, the 8-year-old son Dmitri died shortly afterwards. Although the death was declared an accident, he was probably the victim of Boris Godunov. Thus, when Fyodor died 7 years later, Godunov himself became the tsar. He initiated a peace treaty with the arch-enemy Poland, but only three years later, under the influence of a fake Dmitri, who had miraculously appeared in Poland, it was terminated. Godunov’s reign was a time overshadowed by great crises and Godunov was severely criticized by the boyars (the nobles). During this time of famine, Dmitri of Poland tried to wrest the imperial title from Godunov, and with the help of the boyar Shuiski and the Polish churchman Rangoni, he succeeded in mobilizing an army. The coup failed, but after the death of Godunov he was still able to take over the tsar’s dignity. He married the Polish woman Marina, but was killed shortly afterwards by a Shuiski intrigue – Shuiski became the new Tsar of Russia as Vassili IV.




Mussorgsky wrote a music that was fundamentally different from the Italian opera that was dominant in Russia at the time. He wrote an independent music, even though the mass scenes may have been influenced by French opera.

Mussorgski largely refrained from making a distinction between recitative and aria. Many of the solo performances do not contain arias but are either monologues or songs. For the most part, Mussorgski remains true to the principle of “one syllable = one note”, which maximises the comprehensibility of the text. He does not use classical melody lines, but rather phrases that are ended by chords and then restarted. The music is harmonically bold, only in the Polish scene does it become operatic. A stylistic device often used by him is to have the soloist sing in front of a sound carpet of a choir. It is one of those innovations that would later be adopted by many composers.



The history of the many versions of the opera

After the first publication of Pushkin ‘s work, Mussorgski quickly worked out a first version by 1869. It was rejected by the Imperial Theatre of St. Petersburg, their experts found it too modern. The main argument cited was the lack of a female role.

Mussorgsky set to work again and in 1871 presented a second version with the so-called Polish-Act and the role of Marina. However, the theatre management remained reticent, only a shortened scenic performance in 1873 persuaded the theatre to agree to a production. In 1874 the time had come and with (all) 20 sold-out performances in the St. Petersburg Marjinski Theatre it became Mussorgsky’s greatest triumph. Although the conservative press remained mostly hostile (among them Tchaikovsky), the students and progressives were enthusiastic. After Mussorgsky’s early death in 1881, his friend Rimsky Korsakoff repeatedly took up the score (in the end even under the influence of Debussy, who held the work in high esteem) and changed “technical deficiencies”. With its last version from 1898, the work went around the world a further 10 years later with the embodiment of Boris Godunov by Fyodor Shalyapin and experienced its breakthrough. In 1959 the work was re-instrumented by Shoshtakovich based on the original version. In the meantime, the original version of Mussorgsky is being heard more and more. Rimsky-Korsakoff, who loved the composer and his music, also conjectured that at some point the time would come when the original would be considered more valuable than its revision.



Which finale?

Because of the many versions there are of course countless combinations of versions and scenes. The most prominent question remains whether the Revolution scene or the Council Chamber scene should conclude the opera.







Тоска (tas-‘ka) – Russian longing

Synopsis: In the courtyard of a monastery near Moscow. The Tsar has died. The presumed successor Boris Godunov has retired to the monastery.

The work begins with a typical Russian folk tune. Mussorgsky increases the intensity of the repetitions with the increasing number of instruments. This melody triggers something in the listener that the Russians call Тоска (tas-‘ka). It is a kind of pain, melancholy and longing, an emotional state without any specific external cause.

After this contemplative beginning, the music then takes on threatening features, whipped up by the strings.

nu shtozh vy (Wake up there! Have you frozen into statues?) – Semkov

Synopsis: A police officer forces the crowd in front of the monastery with the whip to beg Boris Godunov to take over the orphaned office of the tsar.

Through the use of church keys and chromatic passages, this beautiful choral passage gets its typical Slavic character.

Na kovo ty nas pokidaesh (Why forsake us and leave us helpless) – Karajan


Synopsis: Shelchanov, the deputy of the Duma appears and warns that Russia needs the wisdom of Godunov.

Pravoslavnyye (O ye Orthodox)

The pilgrim choir

Synopsis: A group of blind pilgrims appears and goes to the monastery. They admonish to appoint a tsar to end the turmoil in Russia.

A beautiful choir of pilgrims that turns into a hymn, answers Shelchanov.

Slava tebyé (Glory to thee our lord) – Ermler



The coronation scene and the famous bells

Synopsis: A place in the Kremlin. The people await the coronation in front of the church and a procession goes to the cathedral for the coronation of the new Tsar Boris Godunov.

Mussorgski worked for a long time on the sound of church bells, and his friend and temporary roommate Rimski Korsakoff helped him. The bells of the Orthodox Church have a peculiar and complex sound. The interaction of the bells has no harmonic foundation. Mussorgski imitates the sound of these bells with two chords that together create an atonal moment, which has a fascinating effect on the listener. The bells sound expressive and modern and the listener feels 50 years moved ahead, as to listening to the music of Bela Bartok.

You can hear bells right at the beginning of the exerpt below. Then listen to the beginning of Rachmaninov’s famous 2nd piano concerto with the introductory piano chords, and you will hear the bells of Mussorgsky!

Afterwards we will hear a beautiful canon-like church choir, and during the repetitions Mussorgski creates a tremendous crescendo and an ecstatic effect with a constantly increasing instrumentation. In the second part of the choral movement he begins to alternate three-four and two-four bars, thus anticipating an important stylistic device of later epochs.

Da zdravstvuet!! (Long live our Tsar / Coronation scene) – Bolshoi

Boris Godunov’s Monologue – a unique scene

Synopsis: Boris appears on the steps of the cathedral. He humbly declares that he wants to exercise the difficult office justly. The people celebrate the new Tsar.

It is Godunov’s first appearance . Surprised, we meet a thoughtful person in the greatest triumph of his life. Boris is already torn apart inside and seems to speak more to himself than to the people.

Skorbit dusha (The soul grieves / Boris’ Monolog) – Nesterenko











Pimen’s Monologue

Synopsis: In a cell of the Chudov monastery. The monk Pimen is working on his chronicle of Russia.

In Pimen’s monologue, we hear one of Mussorgsky’s characteristic instrumentation. It is the striking violas (which sound more prominent than in any other work) with an ostinato motif and the bassoons and clarinets played in low registers that give the orchestra a dark timbre. His monologue is solemn and measured.

Yeshcho odno poslyednye skazanye (Yet one last tale / Pimen’s Monologue) – Gmyria



Grigoris urge for greatness

Synopsis: His cellmate, the monk Grigrory awakes. He tells of a nightmare where he climbed a tower while the people were gathered before him and he fell from the tower. Pimen urges Grigori to be modest. He tells him the story of Tsarevich Dmitri and asks Grigori to finish the Chronicle of Russia with it, to document the tsar’s outrageous deed.

Bozhe krepky, pravy (Lord our heavenly father)


Synopsis: Grigori is agitated when he learns that Boris Godunov ordered the death of the young Czarevich Dmitri, who would now be just as old as the novice.



Grigori’s conversion to usurper

Synopsis: In an inn near the Lithuanian border. The landlady sings the song of the drake.

Poymala ya (Once I caught a duck)


The drinking song of the mendicant

Synopsis: Grigori had escaped from the monastery and plans to impersonate the tsar’s son Dmitri, as if Dmitri had escaped the assassination attempt 10 years earlier. Fleeing from the tsar’s secret police, he came across the two mendicant monks Varlaam and Missail, and they knock on the door of the tavern at night. The innkeeper takes pity on them and entertains them. In gratitude, Varlaam tells her a story.

We hear the swinging drinking-joyful Cossack song in the worth seeing version of the Russian TV version from 1954.

Kak vo gorode (By the walls of Kazan the mighty fortress)



Grigori’s Escape

Synopsis: Grigory tries to learn the way to Lithuania from the landlady. She tells him that the borders are heavily guarded, that they are looking for a refugee. Suddenly there is a knock at the door. A police patrol checks the inn in search of the refugee. They have a warrant. The soldier, who doesn’t know how to read, asks Grigori to read the note. Grigori wants to divert suspicion to Varlaam and changes the text. When the policemen seize Varlaam, he tears the note from Grigori’s hand and reads out the correct description that fits Grigori. Grigori jumps out of the window and escapes the soldiers.











Synopsis: In a sumptuous chamber in the Kremlin. The Czar’s daughter Xenia is sadly immersed in a picture of the late Czarevich. Her nurse tries to cheer her up with a song. Fyodor joins in and together they sing a handclapping game.

It is a cheerful piece, which with its light-heartedness skillfully forms a dramatic contrast to the madness scene that follows.


Skazochka pro to i pro syo (Here is a song to make people laugh … Cock-a-doodle little bird) Grigorieva / Teryushnova


Synopsis: Boris joins them. He is pleased to see his son Fyodor studying the Russian map. Soon his face darkens. He has been ruling for six years. The many worries and threats oppress him, the people accuse him of being responsible for their misery.

When Boris enters, the music abruptly turns into a minor key. Because his family is his only ray of hope, the music soon changes back to major. But heavy wind chords bring him back to dull thoughts.

In this scene we hear the Bulgarian-born Nicolai Ghiaurov. His interpretation of Boris was the opposite of Christoff’s, it is less characteristic-expressive, but it captivates with its musicality and the flowing melodious voice.

Dostig ya vyshey vlasti (I stand supreme im power / Boris Monolog) – Ghiaurov



The great mad scene

Synopsis: His boyar appears and announces the visit of Shuiski. He also reports about a conspiracy of Godunov’s confidants, to which Shuiski belonged. Shuiski enters. Boris insults him in the worst possible way. Shuiski remains unmoved and tells him about a usurper who is gathering troops in Poland. He acts under the name of the late Dmitri and wants to take over power in Russia. Boris wants to know from his confidant Shuiski if he was sure when he saw Dmitri’s body. Shuiski skilfully describes the face of the corpse, which then was already in decay, and says yes. This description does not miss its effect and Godunov sends him away in horror. Alone in the room Boris is tormented by apparitions and collapses.

This scene by Boris Godunov is one of the greatest madness scenes in opera literature. It is also called the Clock Scene, because the chimes in Godunov’s room begin to move at the full hour, and he believes he recognizes the dead ghost of Dmitri in it. We observe the shocking decay of the king, who at times can only stammer. It is no longer one of Verdi’s or Donizetti’s madness scenes with coloratura and leaps in tone, but the declamation becomes a spoken theatre. Mussorgski intensifies the effect by depicting Godunov’s unstable state with repeated tritoni.

Shalyapin as the prototype of the singing actor was the most famous and renowned bass of the first half of the 20th century and sang in all the great opera houses (he did not appear in the Soviet Union from 1921). Boris Godunov was his parade role, and with the embodiment of this role in the production of 1908 he helped this opera decisively to its international breakthrough.

Uk tyazhelo (Oh, give me air! I suffocate) – Shalypin


We hear another recording of this scene from the fifties, sung by the great Russian bassist Alexander Kipnis, who sang Boris late in his career.

Uk tyazhelo (Oh, give me air! I suffocate) – Kipnis


In a third recording we hear the North American bass baritone George London. 1963 He was the first non-Russian to sing Boris at the Bolshoi Theatre, which was the greatest career event for the son of Russian parents.

Uk tyazhelo (Oh, give me air! I suffocate) – London









The «Poland-Act»

Synopsis: Dmitri lives in the castle of a Polish noble family.

Marina’s servants sing the sentimental song “On the banks of the Vistula”.

Na Vislye lazurnoy (At Visia’s blue waters) – Karajan




Synopsis: Their ambitious daughter Marina is bored with the dull life in the province. She dreams of sitting on Moscow’s throne at Dmitri’s side as a tsarina.

Skuchno Marinye (Ah, life is tedious)Garanca



Synopsis: The Jesuit Ragoni wants to gain influence on Dmitri through Marina.

Krasoyu svoyeyu pleni samozvantsa (Your beauty must serve to bewitch the pretender) – Bielecki


Synopsis: During a ball the fake Dmitri hopefully awaits Marina. The Jesuit Rangoni assures him that Martina loves him. She is ready to go to Russia and share the tsar’s crown with him. He asks Dmitri to be his counsellor to convert the people from the Orthodox Church to Catholicism.

Smiryenny, gryeshny bogomolyets za blizhnikh svoikh (Tsarevich, I am but a priest) – Kelemen / Spiess


Synopsis: Marina appears, accompanied by men who swarm around her. This provokes Dmitri’s jealousy.

The guests appear with a brilliant polonaise.

Vashey strast ya nye vyeryu (How can I believe you love me marquis)


The «Italian» duet

Synopsis: When the two find together, Dmitri explains his ardent love to her. But Marina is not interested in his love vows. If he is looking just for a woman, he will certainly find one in Moscow. Dmitri contradicts that he wants only her, the crown does not count for him. Marina laughs at the eager lover and declares that she will marry him only as the tsar’s wife. In response, Dmitri agrees to lead the army in the war against Godunov. Marina now takes his hand and the two swear their unholy union.

In composing the “Love Duet” Mussorgsky deliberately dispensed with Italian exuberance, yet here we encounter a rapturous Italian music, whose musical language the genius Mussorgsky naturally mastered perfectly.

In this recording we hear Nicolai Gedda, probably one of the first recordings of the then 27-year-old Swedish tenor, who, as the son of a Russian cantor, had a perfect command of the Russian language. His voice is of glorious sweetness.

O tsarjevich, umolyayu, nye klyani (O tsarevich, I implore you) – Gedda / Kinasz











Synopsis: In front of a church in Moscow. The people are astonished that the priest blessed Czarevich during the service, because he is marching towards Moscow with an army.

Shto, otoshla obyednya (What, has the service finished?) – Karajan



A beggar shocks the tsar – the key role of the simpleton

Synopsis: Beggars are in the square. A stupid beggar is being robbed of a kopeck by the children. Boris Godunov appears with a large entourage and the simpleton wants Godunov to punish the children. Godunov gives him a kopeck and asks him to pray for the Tsar. He takes the money but refuses to pray for Herod of Russia.

In Pushkin’s novel, the idiot does not have the role of the comic tumult, but that of the court jester, who recognizes the realities (as opposed to the people) and speaks the truth, which no one else is allowed to speak. In this way the fool embodies Pushkin’s most important political statement, namely that the uneducated people accept everything if only the old is replaced, without realizing that the new will not be better than the old.

We see this scene in a Soviet Russian production from 1954 with Ivan Kozlovsky, who shaped this role. He was a lyrical tenor who also sang Verdi and was considered “Stalin’s court singer” (Wikipedia).

Kormilyets-batyushka, poday Khrista radi (Merciful gracious Tsar, give alms for Our Lord’s sake) – Iwan Kozlowski



The revolution scene

Synopsis: In a clearing. A boyar is captured by the farmers and is to be lynched together with his wife.

This scene is called the Kromy scene (after the name of the forest) or Revolution scene. It is the archaic scene of a lynching, which was originally intended to be at the end of the opera, but is often played as a second-to-last scene, which creates a strong resigning character (see a bit further down in the remark on the idiot).

Vali syuda! (Let’s put im here) – Karajan



Synopsis: Varlaam and Missail appear and set the mood for Dmitri.

Solntse, luna pomyerknuli (Darkness has swallowed sun and moon)


Synopsis: When two Polish Jesuits appear as vanguard of Dmitri’s troops the pack wants to lynch the two Catholics. But Dmitri appears and saves them. He asks the crowd to follow him to Moscow. Only the simpleton remains there, who laments the bitter fate of the Russian people.

This performance is a related variant of the appearance of the idiot in the scene in front of the church at the beginning of the fourth act, which is sometimes omitted. The statement is the same: again it is the stupid one who is the only one who realizes the bitter reality, that with the new tsar the fate of the people will not change for the better. This performance (and in some versions the opera) ends with the sad sound of the clarinet . A depressing, sobering conclusion that ends musically just as it began musically.

Lyetes, slyozy gorkiye (Tears are flowing)


Synopsis: In the great hall of the Kremlin. The boyars are assembled. United, they want to confront Dmitri’s troops.

Shtozh? Poydom na golosa, boyare (Come, let’s put it to the vote, your lordships) – Bolshoi


Synopsis: Shuiski appears. He reports on the Tsar’s growing instability. Then the Tsar appears in the Duma. Horrified, they see the deranged Tsar who wants to scare away the invisible spirit of the Tsarevich. Boris takes a seat on the Czar’s throne and Shuiski announces the arrival of a wise old man. Boris lets the monk Pimen enter, who tells of a miracle. He tells of a blind old man to whom the deceased Czarevich appeared and who helps him to see again.

Boris’ legacy

Synopsis: Shocked, Boris decides to hand over the tsardom to his son.

This scene is the swan song of Boris Godunov, beginning with a lyrical chant in which he addresses his son in an incantatory manner. His voice goes to the highest regions in pianissimo. It is first solemnly accompanied by brass, then by tender strings. Finally he turns to God. Accompanied by an expressive tremolo of the strings, and the voice fades away solemnly.

Proschay moy syn, umirayu (Farewell, my son, I am dying) – Christoff


The Stage Death

Synopsis: You can hear the chant of a group of approaching monks. Boris changes his tsar’s robe with the monk’s atonement robe and collapses dead.

Again the bells ring out, and once more the tsar rears up. The choir of the monks can be heard, they are his conscience and he realizes that his last hour is approaching. Boris is only a shadow of himself and only manages to stammer words. Suddenly a consoling melody breaks out of the depths and peace returns to the dying Tsar. Deep clarinets and bassoons accompany him to his death, the music turns to major and ends in a consoling mood.

Zvon! Pogrebal’ny zvon! Hark! (Tis the knell of death) – Talvela / Banjewicz



The whole death scene with Boris Christoff

Christoff was perhaps the most famous Boris together with Shalyapin. He sang the role over 600 times and shaped the role like no one else. The declamation belongs to his understanding of the role. In some parts he hardly sings at all, but declaims theater like, which was criticized by certain experts, but undoubtedly had a poignant effect. See the whole final scene in a film adaptation with Boris Christoff. Note especially the end (from 11:30) with the expressive declamation.

Finale – Christoff




Recording Recommendation





Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on BORIS GODUNOV by Modest Mussorgsky.

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