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Musical Psychoanalysis: 'Boris Godunov'

In the 1960s, the remains of the Russian czar Ivan the Terrible were exhumed for analysis and toxic levels of mercury were discovered. Some concluded that the czar was poisoned — and the prime suspect was the tormented title character in Modeste Mussorgsky's opera, Boris Godunov.

Still, while the assassination of Ivan the Terrible would make for a great opera, Mussorgsky's drama tells a different, and even more sensational story — about Boris Godunov's supposed 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 some considered the true heir to the throne. Not surprisingly, when Dmitri died of a purportedly accidental throat-cutting at age 10, it was rumored 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 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 Godunov is the only one that still has a consistent place in the repertory – perhaps because it's far more than a straightforward, historical drama.

In many ways, the opera is a sort of musical psychoanalysis — with more than one subject. One subject is Boris himself, and few operas pry more deeply into any single character's private emotions. But the opera also presents a psychological portrait of the Russian people, which comes through in Mussorgsky's extensive and powerful use of choruses.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a lush production of Boris Godunov featuring the great, American bass Samuel Ramey in the title role.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

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