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Samuel Ramey (Boris Godunov) [Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera]
04 Nov 2008

Boris Godunov at San Francisco Opera

As performed just now by the San Francisco Opera Mussorgsky’s initial (1869), seven scene version of Boris Godunov revealed itself a finished masterpiece.

Above: Samuel Ramey (Boris Godunov)

All photos by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera


As recently as 1992 SFO still made use of an “improved” version of this magnificent opera — Mussorgsky’s own so-called definitive version (1872), improved in that it provided a role for a diva, added a resplendent ball scene and included the pretender Dimitri’s march to Moscow.

The fate of Mussorgsky’s Boris gets even more complicated because after his death his friend Rimsky-Korsakov did him the favor of improving his vocal lines and his orchestration, and then 50 years later Soviet composer Shostakovitch improved the Rimsky-Korsakov version. San Franciscans know all three musical versions, in the early years it was the Rimsky-Korsakov, but as one of the world’s progressive companies in the 1970’s San Francisco Opera was among the first to recover Mussorgsky’s original orchestration. The more recent 1992 staging offered, gratefully, the fine Shostakovitch version.

PimenGrigory.pngVitalij Kowaljow (Pimen) and Vsevolod Grivnov (Grigory)
This twelfth San Francisco Opera staging of Boris Godunov is the first time that San Franciscans will see Mussorgsky’s original seven scenes. The profound concentration of the audience (10/30/08) made it apparent that there was not one note too many, nor one note too few. It was a performance of perfection, our hearts and minds focused, with Mussorgsky, on the power, the fear and the anguish of Pushkin’s guilty czar Boris.

Never mind that modern historians do not find Boris guilty of murdering the czarevitch Dimitri, Pushkin and Mussorgsky did, thus Boris lives in history as a magnanimous ruler tormented by the crime that made him the ruler of Russia. Boris is a man who is kind to his children and his people, and brutally cruel to his enemies. Obsessed by the terrible guilt of murder, he understands that his crime will inflict unspeakable suffering onto the Russian people.

The program booklet attributes this production to Norwegian theater director Stein Winge, who staged Boris at the Grand Théâtre de Genève in 1993. These fifteen years later any reference to his original staging is surely coincidental, though the rudiments of his conception still exist in the huge abstract wooden structure, a massive skateboard ramp that is the stage, and the magnificent costumes that seem to have jumped out of the museum paintings that commemorate this turbulent period of Russian history. Though the production hardly reflects current operatic thought, it is timeless in concept, the powerful image of the land and state made only of wood and therefore as vulnerable to easy destruction as are Russia’s forests and her wooden churches, palaces and villages.

Mussorgsky’s opera is really only a few scenes from Pushkin’s huge play of the same name. These scenes are intoned over music, a sort of opéra dialoguée though Mussorgsky’s Boris adds the historical social moment with huge, beseeching choruses, the wily songs of countryside peasantry, and the landscape itself echoing in the tonal magnificence of church bells. Its biggest moments are however its most intimate moments, the two monologues that tell of the czarevitch’s murder, Boris’ great soliloquy and then his death, and the moral authority of Boris’ nemesis — an idiot — in a simple song.

Simpleton.pngAndrew Bidlack (The simpleton)
Nothing is ever perfect, least of all this San Francisco Opera production, but the word perfect lingers because of the many fine performances turned in. Russian conductor Vassily Sinaisky brought Mussorgsky’s score radiantly alive in the huge chorus scenes, and brilliantly detailed the musical colors of the monologues, eloquently stating the ironies of Mussorgsky’s leitmotifs.

Mo. Sinaisky was particularly effective with his Russian speaking colleagues. The heroic tenor of Vsevolod Grivnov rang with the opportunism of Dimitri, the warm, well produced voice of bass Vitalij Kowaljow gave strong presence to the old monk/chronicler Pimen, bass Vladimir Ognovenko made the wily, corrupt Varlaam into an infatuating caricature of a mendicant monk. Tenor John Uhlenhopp gave a beautifully sung and brilliantly graphic characterization of the treacherous prince, Shuisky, and mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook offered an absolutely believable raunchy Innkeeper.

Perhaps bass Samuel Ramey was once perfection itself as the czar Boris Godunov. At this point in what has been a distinguished career only the shell of a voice remains. He held himself at a strange distance from Boris, seeming only occasionally to make contact with either the vocal line or the Boris character. By contrast his son Fyodor was brought alive by twelve year old Jack Gorlin, in an extraordinary performance that was vocally, musically and histrionically that of a finished artist.

The cast is large, thus San Francisco Opera made a lot of use of its artists-in-training program, the Adler Fellows. Soprano Ji Young Yang was perfect as the Czar’s daughter Xenia, and tenor Matthew O’Neill was masterful as the rogue monk Missail. The commanding stature of whip cracking baritone Kenneth Kellogg was effective. Soprano Daveda Karanas functioned as the Nurse to the Czar’s children. The casting of a young artist-in-training as the Simpleton was unfortunate. Tenor Andrew Bidlack could not contribute the complex stature needed for this role, nor does he possess the purity of voice color appropriate to the simplicity and emotional import of this daunting personage.

PrinceEntrance.jpgJohn Uhlenhopp (Prince Shuisky)

The current stage director for this widely traveled production was Julia Pevzner who moved people on and off stage as needed, but seemed to have left the huge cast otherwise helpless. The brilliant, now dated set for this 1993 Geneva production was designed by Sweden’s Goran Wassberg, the sumptuous costumes the work of Norwegian designer Kari Gravklev.

Michael Milenski

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