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The Story of 'Boris Godunov'

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.