By Elsa Tranter
Photo credit: Cory Weaver
Not to be outdone by Wagner's Ring Cycle across the street at the Opera House (more about that soon), the San Francisco Symphony, led by the indomitable Michael Tilson Thomas, is mounting a semi-staged version of Modest Mussorgsky’s original 1869 epic opera "Boris Godunov" (with a little tweaking from the re-written 1872 version). Opening night went smoothly with singers, dancers, choruses and orchestra in top form. The story, inspired by Pushkin’s Shakespearean tragedy, follows the rise and fall of the 16th century Tsar Boris Godunov in a story underpinned by ambition, power, and betrayal.
The creative team was headed by James Darrah; his team of designers has successfully mounted several other events with the symphony at Davies Hall, most recently a delightful "On the Town" (quite a contrast in tone from this production). There was a raised stage just behind the orchestra and another one in front of it, with the chorus behind and above the musicians, visible through a broken wall. In addition, Russian bells were played high up on the sides of the auditorium. Video projections layered over the whole added to the effectiveness and kept one’s attention throughout, while adding to the audience’s understanding of the story as it played out.
Musically, there was an excellent, large cast of mostly Eastern European singers. Heading it was bass Stanislav Trofimov as Boris Godunov; he was able to capture the various emotions of the title character as he tried to conquer and preside over an unruly country. Others included tenor Sergei Skorokhodov as Grigory, tenor Yevgeny Akimov as Prince Shuisky, bass Vyacheslav Pochapsky as Varlaam, bass Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev as Pimen, baritone Aleksey Bogdanov as Andrei Schelkalov, and tenor Stanislav Mostovoy as the Holy Fool. Additional singers included soprano Jennifer Zetlan as Xenia, mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet as Foydor, mezzo-soprano SIlvie Jensen as the nurse, mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook as the innkeeper, tenor Ben Jones as Missail, bass-baritone Phillip Skinner as Nikitich, and bass Chung-Wai Soong as Mityukha. Dancers including Christopher Bordenave and Judson Emery completed the cast. They were all in good voice and convincing as actors. The Pacific Boychoir under the direction of Andrew Brown and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus directed by Ragnar Bohlin gave their consistently excellent performances. Finest of all was the orchestra itself; Michael Tilson-Thomas is an inspiring and creative leader and conductor and he gets brilliant sound from the musicians. Given the constraints of the Davies Hall staging area, it was a masterful production.
The story is a dark and complicated one, full of intrigue, murder, factional fighting, with the peasants on the losing end of each change of leadership. The music is dark as well, and the general tone of the singing is in the lowest registers. The occasional burst of a soprano or tenor was welcome, but never lasted long enough. There are no traditional arias, and the overall effect is of the choral sound with orchestra.
This work is quite distinctive within the operatic repertoire, and despite the special effects, the overall tone was very dark and pessimistic. Not at all to be confused with "On the Town"!
Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years. She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly. Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.