Vocalist - Mezzo-Soprano
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Searching for Boris Godunov
For an opera that is so beloved for its emotional and harmonic gravity, Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov has had a rather chameleonic history. After the original 1869 version of the opera met with rejection by the board of the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg, Mussorgsky created a revised version in 1872. To soften the opera's relentlessly masculine tone, he gave the chorus additional presence and added a character aria for the female Innkeeper, a Princess, and a love scene at the Castle of Sandomir in Poland. He also created several other scenes, including the great clock scene in which Boris hallucinates the murdered Dimitri, and changed the ending. Although this revised version of 1872 debuted successfully two years later, it slowly disappeared from view until Rimsky-Korsakov undertook two major revisions that appeared in 1896 and 1908.

To Boris lovers who are accustomed to hearing the opera in either the Rimsky-Korsakov or Shostakovich redos, San Francisco Opera's stab at the original 1869 version may come as a shock. For starters, much of the lush, colorful orchestration is pared down. Although a few of Mussorgsky's 1872 revisions are retained, Poland and the Princess are off the books, and there is no forest scene in which Grigory (the Pretender Dmitri) returns to seize power. Nor does the Simpleton's song haunt the memory as the curtain closes. Boris dies, the music ends, and a confused audience is left wondering if they should feel sympathy for the murderer, or anger at being cheated out of a wealth of glorious music.

The SF Opera production was mounted at the request of the great American bass-baritone Samuel Ramey. The 66-year old artist, whose appearance commemorates the 30th anniversary of his SFO debut, prefers it because "the focus is on Boris himself." Unfortunately, while most of Ramey's magnificent, authoritative tone remains, the voice has taken on a distinct beat that robs it of expressive nuance. What formerly seized mind and heart with its communicative beauty now impresses more for its stamina. The result is a performance that, while remarkable in many respects, leaves us observing Boris' decline rather than engaging us.

Nonetheless, the overall quality of singing is so high that the production remains compelling. Tenor Vsevolod Grivnov's Grigory (the Pretender Dmitri) is exceptionally strong, and so beautifully sung that many Boris aficionados will feel cheated that he does not sing triumphantly at opera's end. Nicolai Janitzky's dark Shchelkalov finds his counterpart in Vitaliz Kowaljow's moving, sonorous Pimen. Vladimir Ognovenko makes the most of Varlaam's big aria, which is such an audience-pleaser that the great Chaliapin often played both Varlaam and Boris in the same production. The evil and intrigue of tenor John Uhlenhopp's Prince Shuisky are balanced by the lovely innocence of boy soprano Jack Gorlin (who is soon destined to sing in a different register).

Chalk up the Innkeeper as another character-role triumph for mezzo Catherine Cook. If ever a singer knew how to delight with a treasure chest of voice and gesture, it is this former Adler Fellow. Although second-year Adler Fellow Ji Young Yang does not have a large role as Xenia, the fragile purity of her unique soprano continues to stand out from the pack. So does another Adler Fellow, handsome, towering bass Kenneth Kellogg, who takes unfettered relish in repeatedly cracking his whip.

When the world's sweetest looking Simpleton, adorable Adler Fellow Andrew Bidlack, first clung to his spire, raised his head in prayer, and limped across the stage, the soulfulness of his silent characterization broke my heart. If, in his aria, what was intended as innocence and spiritual illumination impressed most for sweetness and charm, the bel canto skill with which he pared down his voice suggests that the portrayal will likely mature into a great one.

SFO's chorus under Ian Robertson was especially strong in the Coronation scene, and moved wonderfully onstage. The variety of Duane Schuler's lighting and Kari Gravklev's colorful costumes (with muted pastels for the peasants) enables Goran Wassberg's static set to hold interest. Given that the original version of the opera robs debut conductor Vassily Sinaisky of many of his biggest moments to shine, I hesitate to fault him for the lack of splendor. No questions arise about Julia Pevzner's directorial mastery, which consistently injects life into the production, or the power of Mussorgsky's spiky, chilling harmonies. This is hardly a perfect Boris, but it makes clear why Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich devoted so much effort to ensuring its success.
Jason Victor Serinus, Bay Area Reporter
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