Boris Godunov, Opera by M. Mussorgsky
Historical dramas were no strangers to the golden age of Russian opera in the nineteenth century. Glinka, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov all used real past events for their inspiration, and Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is no exception.
Mussorgsky’s masterpiece, based on the play Boris Godunov by Aleksandr Pushkin, had a troubled start in life. Mussorgsky himself had to create two versions of his work before it could enjoy its world premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on 8 February 1874, the authorities possibly worried that the opera might be seen as a veiled critique on the legitimacy of the imperial family.
Boris Godunov has been crowned Tsar of Russia but only after assassinating the true heir, Dmitriy. Grigoriy, a novice monk, assumes the identity of the murdered Dmitriy and gathers an army to march on Moscow. As news reaches him of the advance of the false pretender to the throne, Godunov’s world begins to crumble around him.
Not one of the characters comes out of the drama well. Grigoriy is an imposter too, aided and abetted by the ambitions of the Catholic Polish nobility, embodied in the deceitful figure of Marina Mniszech. Rather than deciding for one side against the other - the Holy Fool's lament provides a deliciously ambivalent ending - Mussorgsky was more interested in showing us Godunov’s state of mind, brought to life by the extraordinary harmonic power of his music.
The Vienna State Opera is the venue for this highly original opera which continues to be performed the world over; Boris Godunov is a work which still appeals to audiences today because of its brilliance in revealing the innermost thoughts and fears of the human psyche.