23 Jun 2018

Boris Godunov in San Francisco

Yes, just when you thought Wotan was the only big guy in town San Francisco Symphony (just across a small street from San Francisco Opera), offered three staged performances of the Mussorgsky masterpiece Boris Godunov in direct competition with San Francisco Opera’s three Ring des Nibelungen cycles.

Though the Symphony billed the program as semi-staged for all intents and purposes it is fully staged. There is scenery or what purports to be in this digital age (this also happens across the street). There are lights and costumes and make-up. There is a stage on two levels. Reduced San Francisco Symphony forces (the string count [and personnel] is not specified in the program booklet — maybe 12/10/8/6/5) were stuffed in between in a sort of pit.

More accurate billing would have defined the production as a compromised staging, given that nothing functioned very well, sacrificing the contributions of the pit players of a major symphony orchestra and the imposing presence of imported Russian singers among the generally high-level cast.

Perhaps the four towers that support a lighting-grid circle are recycled from staged production to staged production at the Symphony thus alleviating what must be the breath-taking cost of trying to mount an opera production in a symphony hall. Lighting, rather lack of effective lighting was the most problematic technical issue of the evening.

There was a huge cyclorama — a semi-architectural, jagged backdrop — behind the orchestra and stage platforms onto which unrelenting video images were projected. There were cutouts to reveal the San Francisco Symphony Chorus seated in the stage terrace (amphitheater) behind the orchestra platform, the voices of the Russian populace. The projections onto the huge backdrop attempted grandeur — sometimes nature, sometimes specific colorful Russian architecture, sometimes interpretive color blotches, sometimes black shadows on blank white.

Stage director James Darrah employed six ninja-like action facilitators who were often, but not always, carefully choreographed. These six were sometimes joined by another 12 or so supers to constitute more specific though soundless Russian souls. The ninja’s participation was sometimes abstract and sometimes descriptive, like the lengthy, bloody downstage center brutalizations of a captured boyar (aristocrat) and two Jesuits.

It was complex staging that attempted to adapt Mussorgsky’s sprawling drama to an essentially non theatrical space.

The event was certainly envisioned to be magnificent, and it was in spite of itself. After all it is magnificent music, and San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas of course made the most of it. Two loge boxes were conscripted to hold ranks of Russian bells that rang forth gloriously when called upon. A solo trumpet sounded an imposing fanfare from the first tier. These moments of unleashed sonic grandeur encased Mussorgsky’s grand choruses as well as the vaguely connected scenes of private discussions and of Boris’ raving. The extended intimacy of these solo voice scenes required that the SF Symphony’s virtuoso players become accompanists. And that they did, like an overly careful sometimes precious accompanist at a lieder recital.

There were two genuine Russian basses, the Boris of Stanislav Trofimov of St. Petersburg’s Marinsky Theater and the Pimen of Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev of the Novaya Opera Theatre Moscow. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is about words, about the Russian language and about the Russian soul. The Russian bass epitomizes these qualifications as no other voice. Both Mr. Trofimov and Mr. Kuzmin-Karavaev are excellent specimens.

There were three genuine Russian tenors, the intense Grigory (the Pretender) of Sergei Skorokhodov of the Marinsky Theatre and the harsh, very harsh Shuisky of Yevgeny Akimov, a veteran of the Marinsky and all of the world’s major stages, and the very sweetly sung Holy Fool of Stanislav Mostovoy of the Bolshoi Theatre.

The home team included San Francisco Opera’s Catherine Cook and Philip Skinner as the Innkeeper and Nikitich (a police officer) respectively who well held their own amidst the Russians. Of particular note was the Shchelkalov of American baritone Aleksey Bogdanov who made the opera’s momentous announcements in convincingly Russian voice.

It is always said that the protagonist of Boris Godunov is its chorus of suffering Russians. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus brought true beauty of style and edge of tone to its cultured and earnest concert choir voice, well defining its role as a musical protagonist. Though of course the real protagonists of the drama are Russian basses —┬áthe suffering czar Boris and the hermit Pimen, the chronicler of his reign.

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas held all of this together with great aplomb and with obvious understanding, respect and affection for this great monument of Russian art.

Michael Milenski


Cast and production information:

Stanislav Trofimovbass (Boris Godunov), Eliza Bonet Mezzo-soprano (Fyodor), Jennifer Zetlan Soprano (Xenia), Silvie Jensen Mezzo-soprano (Nurse), Yevgeny Akimov Tenor (Prince Shuisky), Aleksey Bogdanov Baritone (Andrei Shchelkalov), Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev Bass (Pimen), Sergei Skorokhodov Tenor (Grigory), Vyacheslav Pochapsk yBass (Varlaam), Ben Jones Tenor (Missail), Catherine Cook Mezzo-soprano (Innkeeper), Stanislav Mostovoy Tenor (Holy Fool), Philip Skinner Bass (Nikititsch), Chung-Wai Soong Bass (Mityukha). Pacific Boychoir, Andrew Brown, Director; San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Ragnar Bohlin Director; San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas Conductor. Stage Director: James Darrah, Lighting Design: Pablo Santiago; Video: Adam Larsen; Scenic and Costume Design: cameron Jaye Mock. Davis Hall, San Francisco, June 14, 2018)