Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Mussorgsky's 'Boris Godunov'

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit