Semi-Staged ‘Boris,’ Over The Top, Is Semi-Successful

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By Janos Gereben

SAN FRANCISCO – Within just two blocks of San Francisco’s Civic Center, “big opera” reigns.

As three San Francisco Opera cycles of Wagner’s Ring got underway at the War Memorial, the San Francisco Symphony delivered three semi-staged performances of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov June 14-17.

Outside a monastery near Moscow, clamor for Boris builds. (Photos: Cory Weaver)

Michael Tilson Thomas, born to opera but almost never seen in opera houses, has been leading the San Francisco Symphony in soignée concert performances of operas in recent years, advertised as “semi-staged.” MTT’s chosen stage director, a young, fast-rising artist from Los Angeles, scoffs at the term. James Darrah, who works with his own production team, keeps it simple when he says a performance is either staged or not.

Regardless of the kind and extent of their staging, Thomas and Darrah have been receiving well-deserved audience and critical acclaim for their collaborations, especially for a superb Peter Grimes in 2014. Expectations were high for Boris Godunov given MTT’s Russian roots, the participation of Ragnar Bohlin’s brilliant San Francisco Symphony Chorus, and the debut engagement of prominent Russian singers as principals, including bass Stanislav Trofimov in the title role.

The orchestra’s preparations even included an exhibit in the Davies lobby – “Times of Trouble: the Intersection of Music and Politics“– which dealt with historical and political aspects of the complex Godunov story.

Coronation scene: Boris (Stanislav Trofimov) is crowned Tsar amid bells and cheers.

The opera is based on Aleksandr Pushkin’s biased chronicle of the tsar who ruled first as regent for Ivan the Terrible’s deranged son Fyodor. Then, having supposedly killed Ivan’s other son, Dmitriy, Boris reigned from 1598 to 1605. He was succeeded by a pretender who claimed he was Dmitriy, escaping death. Pushkin and Mussorgsky regarded Boris as guilty on all counts, never mind history’s much kinder verdict.

Adding to interest in the production was MTT’s return to “the original,” or rather to two of them. Even among operas with a tortuous history of versions and revisions, Godunov stands out with a dozen major performance versions and many additional local tweakings. The best known orchestrations are by Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich.

MTT’s solution was a fusion of Mussorgsky’s own two versions, including the Kremlin scene with Boris’ death from the first version in 1869, but omitting its St. Basil scene. To close the work, the production added from the 1872 version the misery-filled Forest of Kromy scene. The conductor was said to have pared the opera down to “just under two hours,” using Mussorgsky’s original 1869 orchestration, whose “angular, daring, fresh harmonic language” particularly appealed to him, even if many others regard it as thick, string-heavy and gloomy.

“Under two hours” turned out to be a three-hour affair, including intermission, which would have been fine for the Ring-experienced audience, but these were not hours well spent. Despite individual bright spots provided by the chorus and wonderful Russian soloists, the whole was less than its parts. Musically, dramatically, emotionally, it was a downer.

Inexplicably, the major expected strengths – from MTT and Darrah – appeared to have failed. The conductor’s slow tempos and lack of drive and affecting pathos belied the excellence of the orchestra. The director’s series of busy, puzzling, attention-diverting scenes included an unintelligible pre-opening pantomime and an extended, brutal torture scene at the end.

In the palace, the Tsarevich (Eliza Bonet) pores over a map.

Why was it necessary to illustrate what’s in the text and in the music? Does one really have to see the following acted out both by the chorus and the supers?

Torture most frightful,
hanging and beating –
the true believers must suffer
Torture most cruel…
Hanging and beating
innocent people…

Still, the production’s bright spots, persisting under the monotonous blanket of despair and pain, were undeniable, starting with splendid visuals: Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock wrapped Davies Symphony Hall’s stage in fabric with spectacular, if occasionally over-busy, video projections and lighting by Adam Larsen and Pablo Santiago.

The opening Coronation Scene featured the Symphony Chorus at its best, and the principal singers shone in the complex political machinations that followed. Trofimov had little to do initially, but as Boris became increasingly the focus of the story, the bass used his beautiful, baritone-ish voice impressively. The singer is well known in Russia and now in Europe, but this was his San Francisco debut, as it was for the other Russians in the production.

Two very different tenors had major roles, neither sounding like the typical “Russian tenor” of high-pitched, narrow voice: Sergei Skorokhodov, as Grigory the pretender, showed solid middle and lower notes, and Yevgeny Akimov as Prince Shuisky amazed with outbursts of a powerful heldentenor sound.

The dead Tsar Boris is denounced to a mob that’s once again misled.

Tenor Stanislav Mostovoy delivered the plaintive lament of the Holy Fool at the end, deprived of his most important scene in other versions, confronting Godunov:

No, Boris –
I cannot pray for you.
“Don’t pray for Herod,”
our Lady ordered me –
no, I must not pray
for Boris

The soloists went way beyond the “semi” of staging, as Darrah pushed them to excesses such as physical death throes beyond what the music calls for. Merola veteran baritone  Aleksey Bogdanov presented a powerful Shchelkalov; basses Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev’s Pimen and Vyacheslav Pochapsky’s  Varlaam were also memorable.

The non-Russian contingent did well, especially baritone Philip Skinner as the crowd-controlling – and abusing –Nikititsch; also mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet in a trouser role as Fyodor; soprano Jennifer Zetlan as Fyodor’s sister Xenia; mezzo-soprano Silvie Jensen as the nurse; mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook as the innkeeper, and tenor Ben Jones as Missail.

The curtain call at the end filled the stage to the brim with one of the largest groups of performers in Davies Hall history.

Janos Gereben has written for the New York Herald-Tribune, Time-Life, UPI, Detroit Free Press, and for San Francisco Classical Voice since its founding in 1998.

Music director Michael Tilson Thomas, center, led the San Francisco Symphony production of ‘Boris Godunov.’

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