In Boris Godunov, the Tsar of all Russia is consumed with guilt and sees the ghost of the child he has had assassinated in order to seize the throne rise up again in the form of an imposter. With this landmark in Russian opera, Mussorgsky offers a reflection on the solitary nature of power to the backdrop of the eternal sufferings of the Russian people. Director Ivo van Hove draws the spectator into a monumental set in which man is finally reduced to his humanity and must confront what constitutes the end of the work in its original version: silence.
The boyard Boris Godunov, the expected successor to the heirless Tsar Fyodor, has withdrawn to a monastery. At the instigation of a police officer, the crowd again clamours for Boris to accept the imperial crown. Shchelkalov, secretary of the Duma, announces that Boris still refuses the throne. A procession of pilgrims approaches, predicting the coming of a new tsar. The police officer orders the people to go to the Kremlin the following day.
Boris, who has finally accepted the ultimate responsibility, is acclaimed by the people. The Tsar arrives, troubled by dark forebodings. He calls on the boyards to pay their respects and bow before the tombs of sovereigns past, and then invites all the people to share in the feast.
Five years have elapsed. The venerable monk Pimen is writing his chronicles on Russia. The novice Grigori, who shares his cell, awakens from a haunting dream which he has just endured for the third time. When he grumbles about his seclusion, Pimen urges him not to regret having withdrawn from the world and instead to contemplate the lives of the great tsars. The old monk then evokes the memory of Ivan the Terrible and his son Fyodor, before ruing the fact that the new sovereign is an assassin of kings. Grigori questions the old monk about the murder of Tsarevich Dimitri—an act attributed to Boris. He realises that the tsarevich would now be about the same age as himself. When Pimen goes out to pray, Grigori, invokes divine justice.
Varlaam and Missail, two vagabond monks, enter accompanied by Grigori who is hoping to reach the border to escape the police pursuing him. As Varlaam sings the Song of Kazan, Grigori pensively keeps to himself. A patrol suddenly arrives in search of a fugitive monk. Since the guards are unable to read the arrest warrant, Grigori offers his services and concocts an impromptu description that matches Varlaam. The latter, in turn, deciphers the document—albeit with difficulty, and in doing so he unmasks Grigori who manages to flee by leaping through a window.
As Boris’s daughter Xenia mourns the loss of her fiancé, her brother, the tsarevich Fyodor, is busy studying geography. Boris arrives. He comforts his daughter and encourages Fyodor to become familiar with the kingdom that one day may be his. He then begins a painful meditation on the burden of his responsibilities: in spite of his desire for social and political reforms, the people do not understand him. A boyard announces the arrival of Prince Shuysky who has requested an audience. He manages to unsettle Boris by revealing that a pretender posing as the deceased tsarevich has appeared in Lithuania and won the support of the Poles and even the Pope. Boris dismisses his son and implores Shuysky to confirm to him that Dimitri really had been buried in Uglich. The prince takes malicious pleasure in describing the gory details of the child’s death to him. Unable to listen any more, Boris dismisses him, and then breaks down, overwhelmed by the vision of the murdered tsarevich.
The people comment on the news of victories won by the pretender’s troops against Boris. Word spreads that Grigori has been excommunicated. A band of street urchins descend upon a holy fool and harass him. When Boris appears with the boyards, the holy fool asks him to punish the urchins just as when he killed the tsarevich. Shuysky tries to have the holy fool arrested, but Boris stops him and instead asks the latter to pray for his salvation.
The Duma of Boyards meets to deliberate on the rebellion that has broken out in Lithuania. The debate is interrupted by the arrival of Shuysky who describes seeing a raving Boris warding off the ghost of the dead tsarevich. Boris arrives, still in the grips of his hallucinations. As he slowly comes to his senses, Shuysky informs him that a holy man has come seeking an audience. Boris agrees to receive him. Pimen enters and recounts how a blind shepherd was told in a dream to go and pray on the tomb of the dead tsarevich in Uglich and regained his sight after doing so. As the story unfolds Boris again becomes captive to his inner turmoil and breaks down at Pimen’s final words. Sensing that his demise is fast approaching, Boris summons his son and asks that they be left alone. After making his final recommendations, he bequeaths the throne to him. As the bells toll, the boyards return. Boris designates Fyodor as his successor and then collapses and dies.