Singers Excel in an Inert Boris Godunov Concert

15/06/2018

Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov (1869 version): Soloists, San Francisco Symphony Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin [director]), Pacific Boychoir  (Andrew Brown [director]), San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 14.6.2018. (HS)

Soloists, San Francisco Symphony & Michael Tilson Thomas (c) Cory Weaver

Cast:
Boris Godunov — Stanislav Trofimov
Prince Shuisky — Yevgeny Akimov
Pimen — Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev
Grigory — Sergei Skorokhodov
Varlaam — Vyacheslav Pochapsky
Fyodor — Eliza Bonet
Xenia — Jennifer Zetlan
Andrei Shchelkalov — Aleksey Bogdanov
Holy Fool — Stanislav Mostovoy

Production:
Director — James Darrah
Lighting design — Pablo Santiago
Video design —Adam Larsen
Scenic & costume design — Emily Anne MacDonald

San Francisco Symphony concertgoers have learned to anticipate with relish the orchestra’s annual June forays into semi-staged opera and musical theater. From Bernstein to Britten and Wagner, previous performances have shone a bright spotlight on the musical side of things without losing the essence of words and theatricality.

Not this time around. Oh, the stars seemed aligned for a revelatory Boris Godunov. Between music director Michael Tilson Thomas’ innate feel for Russian fare and stage director James Darrah’s previous work here on Peter Grimes, On the Town and a brilliant Beethoven Missa Solemnis—all heralded well for this year’s Boris Godunov, Darrah’s sixth collaboration with Tilson Thomas and the orchestra.

But despite splendid vocalizing from the outsized cast (the key roles occupied by Russian singers), this Godunov fell flat. To be sure, Tilson Thomas set the bar high, opting for the original — and shorter — 1869 version in Mussorgsky’s own dark orchestration. But slow tempos and too little of this conductor’s signature rhythmic thrust made for a gray orchestral contribution. Darrah’s direction doubled down on the blah-ness, with too little dramatic engagement between the characters and visuals that added nothing pertinent.

Emily Anne MacDonald’s scenery surrounded the Davies Symphony Hall stage with abstract cut-outs that served as screens for video projections by Adam Larsen. In lieu of tables, chairs and a throne, Darrah introduced a sextet of dancer-actors who provided a sort of living scenery. Its busy-ness distracted from the narrative rather than adding to it. Focus on these glosses did nothing to bring out the human conflicts within the story.

Contrasted with later versions of the opera, most notably the 1872 revision that added whole scenes and enriched some of the key moments, this version focuses on the central tale of a late 16th-century Russia in turmoil after Ivan The Terrible’s death, the ascension of a boyar named Boris to the throne, the rise of the pretender Dmitri, and the surrounding lies, subterfuges and political intrigue.

In its 2½ hours, the opera’s sweep touches on the oppression of the Russian people, their exultation in Boris’ coronation, a contrasting scene between the historian-monk Pimen and a young novice who happens to be the same age as the heir to the throne murdered years before, and a rollicking inn where another monk sings a war ballad. In two magnificent monologues set in the Kremlin, Boris reveals his guilt over his part in the young prince’s murder and, in the final scene of the 1869 version, dies as pressure from a pretender looms. This production adds the Kromy Forest scene from the 1872 version, in which the Russian people hail the pretender and a Holy Fool seems to be the only honest character in the opera.

One by one, each of the singers entrusted with the music along this winding road delivered focused, alluring tone and idiomatic vocalization, none more compelling than Russian bass Stanislav Trofimov’s too-human Boris. The sound was even from the resonant bottom to the ringing top of his range, his acting unaffected and natural. He lacked for nothing in stamina in the two lengthy monologues, but dramatically he seemed to be in his own world rather than connecting with the characters around him.

Among the myriad supporting roles, standouts included Yevgeny Akrimov, whose sleek, silky tenor and regal demeanor made the duplicitous Prince Shuisky a beacon of musical power, and Maxim Kuzmin-Karavev, whose lyrical bass invested the history-obsessed monk Pimen with a level of nobility. Tenor Sergei Skorokhodov’s almost serene demeanor added depth his role as Grigory, who becomes the pretender Dmitri. Bass Vyacheslav Pochapsky brought a wry sense of humor to the drunken monk Varlaam and tenor Stanislav Mostovoy added a lovely innocence and purity of tone to the Holy Fool.

Cuban-American mezzo soprano Eliza Bonet found grace in Boris’ son Fyodor’s music, and American soprano Jennifer Zetlan lavished charm on Xenia, the star’s daughter. In smaller roles, veteran mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook made the most of a bawdy turn as the innkeeper, and Philip Skinner enunciated the barking commands of the policeman Nikitch with a smooth bass-baritone.

But the pieces of the puzzle never quite fit together dramatically or musically. The Pimen-Grigory scene, where the monk tells the novice that he’s writing the final chapter wherein he implicates Boris in the murder of the young prince, issued none of its expected sparks. The inn scene in which Grigory — in hiding as the pretender Dmitri until he slips away to Lithuania — came off as flaccid. Even the big choral scenes, sung with gusto and precision by the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, lost their mojo from slow tempos and a disappointing lack of orchestral thrust.

This is an opera that exposes the bleak treachery that characterized the time, and does so with music that Mussorgsky himself knew needed to be fleshed out in his own revision. Other composers — notably Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich — took it upon themselves to revise the score for better theatricality and musical color. Mussorgsky’s own orchestration, though reviled by others in his own time, can be seen from a 21st-century perspective as forward-looking, containing innovations and gestures that feel almost modern.

In the end, Tilson-Thomas’ conducting and Darrah’s misguided staging never quite brought all that forward.

Harvey Steiman

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