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The Story of 'Boris Godunov'

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.

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