Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov at the Met

Met-boris This season, the Metropolitan Opera is presenting two operas that weave personal emotional drama into the sweep of great historical events: Boris Godunov and Don Carlo. On October 8, the final dress rehearsal of Boris took place, and what follows are the Unbiased Opinionator's impressions.

* Notes * 
After Peter Stein's cancellation due to visa difficulties, it was left to Stephen Wadsworth, in only five weeks, to rework the show's staging and direction. Perhaps as a result of this abrupt change in leadership, René Pape's Boris seemed lost, staggering about the stage, looking more drunk than physically and emotionally tormented by the burdens of power and guilt. His vocal delivery seemed to lack core, which might be attributed to the early hour of the rehearsal. Nonetheless, his sound was diffuse and as the rehearsal progressed, tended toward a barked delivery, even in the more legato monologues. I am a great admirer of René Pape's work, however, he seemed miscast here – the effective center of his range is higher than the role demands. But, then, where are the true bassi of yore, those cast in the mold of Ghiarov, George London or Jerome Hines, let alone Chaliapin?

That said, the remaining, very large, solo cast was uniformly strong. Particularly fine were Ekaterina Semenchuk (Marina) and Aleskadrs Antonenko (Grigoriy). The performance by the young Jonathan A. Makepeace as Boris' son Fyodor was nothing short of astonishing: vocally, dramatically and choreographically. This role is often taken by a mezzo-soprano, and such a level of accomplishment by an adolescent was immensely impressive. I cannot imagine a better Pimen (bass Mikhail Petrenko), whose solemn portrayal of the hermit was very moving. Evgeny Nikitin's Rangoni could perhaps be faulted for a certain ragged vocal delivery, but this was in keeping with the smarminess of the character, alternately coming on sexually to Marina and trying convince her to seduce Grigoriy into returning to Moscow to claim the throne, paving the way for the destruction of Russian Orthodoxy by Rome.

The large chorus in Boris Godunov is a character in itself, and a very important one. Driven and oppressed, veering from servile obedience to outraged vengeance, the Met chorus was dramatically magnificent and technically unimpeachable, with razor sharp attacks, violent and dramatically overwhelming outbursts -- never yelled, or (as in previous years) fraught with poor blend and heavy vibrato in the soprano section. Donald Palumbo's work with this group has created one of the world's finest opera choruses.

As in Wagner, the orchestra is also itself a character in the opera; never a mere accompaniment, but rather a commentator on and instigator of the events taking place on stage. The incomparable Met orchestra rose to the occasion, which is particularly impressive in light of the fact that the weakest link in this performance was conductor Valery Gergiev, whose head remained buried in the score as he threw out the occasional cue with his left hand, while the right hand flaccidly and indistinctly waved about in unintelligible beat patterns. It is a tribute to the soloists, the choral ensemble and the orchestra that the performance was as cohesive as it was, with only occasional lack of coordination between the pit and the stage. Further, the tempi chosen by Gergiev, in particular in the prologue and in the Third Act Polonaise, were unconscionably rushed. The small string figures that spin over the characteristic rhythm of the Polonaise were reduced to a thin wash as the players struggled to keep up. One can only surmise, generously, that tempo choices were dictated by time constraints.

The set design was spare – even abstract, with the Novodievichy Monastery in the first act reduced to a small entry portal on stage left. The Kremlin consisted of a gold wall which descended from the flies, with a small curtained door for Boris' entrances and exits. While this created a wonderful acoustic resonator for the singers, the row of bells at the top of the set, remaining motionless as digitally produced bell sounds pealed, was frankly a bit silly. The Polish court scene consisted of rows of black columns, which provided a fine backdrop for the elaborate white gowns and hats worn by the noblewomen (designed by Dorothee Urmacher). The triumphant return of Grigory the Pretender's forces in Varmy forest, en route to Moscow, was set on a bare, raked staged, with a central rectangular opening, out of which emerged banner-waiving soldiers and two white horses, which reinforced the old maxim – live animals and children are scene-stealers. At the conclusion, the Holy Fool (in a very fine delivery by tenor Andrey Popov), bemoans the dark destiny of Mother Russia; godless, populated by a mob and rabble ready to follow any leader strong enough to bludgeon his way to power.

* Tattling * 
Peter Gelb's latest innovation, offering 1,000 dress rehearsal tickets by lottery, in addition to those offered to patrons and guild members, combined with a thoughtful and intelligent spoken introduction, and his humorous admonition that the only electrical devices that should operate during the performance be on stage and not in the auditorium, provided for a mercifully quiet, disciplined and cellphone-free audience. If only this were the case in performances and not just dress rehearsals!


Final Dress Rehearsal of Boris Godunov

This account of the final dress of Boris comes from Upstairs Tenor, who is an usher and supernumerary at San Francicsco Opera.

  * Notes * 
After sitting through both the dress rehearsal and premiere, and being lulled nearly to sleep by both, I can say without hesitation that this production of Boris Godunov is one of the dullest I've ever seen, partially due to the very version of the opera performed. I question the choice of the 1869 edition of the opera, without Mussogorsky's effective rewrites. I suspect the choice of edition was due partially to showcase Sam Ramey (who fared significantly better on the dress than he did on opening night, both vocally and dramatically) and partially to spare the expenditure of hiring a mezzo to sing Marina. In any case, the production itself needs a firmer hand at the wheel than Julia Pevzner, who allowed the dramatic tension (of which, when the opera is done right, there is plenty) to lag almost constantly. Reports from friends and involved in the production indicated that the rehearsal period was extremely chaotic, and it showed. The Coronation scene needed to be re-thought entirely, as did the scene between the Tsar's children and the nurse. (I hated the use of the giant map.) On the positive side, the inn scene crackled with energy, and I for one enjoyed the "build-up" of the Simpleton as an observer; He is such an important character that seems to come from nowhere in the opera, having him as a silent observer actually made sense.

I share everyone's enthusiasm for Andrew Bidlack, who I have been impressed with in the past, especially in The Little Prince. His performance was exemplary Vladimir Ognovenko was another obvious standout; his years of experience with the part, which he does often with the Kirov Opera, paid off gloriously. One must credit Vitalij Kowalijow and Vsevolod Grivnov for doing what they could with the dramatically dead Cloister scene, a prime example of what I call "Gurnemanz Syndrome," in which a bass gives exposition for about twenty minutes. Both sang well, Grivnov marking slightly, as did Kenneth Kellogg as the Police Officer. Jack Gorlin, the treble singing Fyodor was amplified unobtrusively on opening night but left to hold his own at the dress, which he was unable to do.

I noticed one change in staging between dress and performance: at the dress, both of Boris' children came onstage to say their farewells, and Xenia (who does not sing in the scene), spent her time onstage quietly sobbing. This was cut on opening night, and only Fyodor was present for his father's last address.

* Tattling * 
I heard a watch alarm or two in the orchestra, but no cell phones went off. That is not to say they weren't on, as a man sitting a few seats down from me kept looking at his messages or getting the time or checking his mail or something. Whatever it was, it was irritating, and no matter how long I gave him a look, he kept doing it. He finally stopped in the middle of Act II, which turned out not to be enthralling enough for a man several rows behind me, who fell asleep and let out a loud snore before being nudged awake by a small girl sitting a seat down from him.

There were plenty of onstage mishaps and errors: a super's hat fell off during the inn scene and the lighting effect for the Simpleton's aria didn't work correctly when one of the floor panels containing light banks didn't pop up in time. To the enjoyment of the entire audience, when Mr. Ramey died with a tremendous fall to the stage, he did not account for the stage's slope and fell too far downstage, and was forced to roll upstage after the music stopped so they could bring down the curtain. During the curtain call, Ognovenko bowed out of costume and Grivnov emerged without his wig.

An error in the program noticed both at dress and performance: Matthew O'Neill plays two roles, Missail and the Boyar-in-attendance, but is only listed as playing Missail.


Opening of Boris Godunov

Boris-godunov-coronation    * Notes * 
The opening performance of Boris Godunov last night at San Francisco Opera was decidedly lackluster. Stein Winge's production, originally for the Grand Théâtre de Genève, is thoroughly undramatic. For the most part the singers simply wandered aimlessly or just stood and sang. The crowd in Scene 2 was especially pathetic. When Boris threw gold at them, they barely made an effort to pick it off the ground. In Scene 4 when Grigory was to make his escape, one of the supernumeraries got into place too soon, he could have easily caught Grigory if he had wanted to, and it was all very unconvincing. Also, having the Simpleton on stage so much was confusing. For one thing, the figure of the Holy Fool is not familiar to the Western audience, and was just a distraction given how many holes there are in the libretto and how many characters there were.

The set, by Göran Wassberg, looked like a rooftop with numerous trap doors. The scene changes were quite simple and not noisy. However, they were all so transparent, and it was difficult to become immersed in the world of this opera. For example in the transition between Scenes 3 and 4, the monks of the former scene take off their robes and become the revelers at the inn. This is, perhaps, intellectually interesting, but is dramatically weak. Kari Gravklev's period costumes were attractive enough, though Xenia's empire-waisted white dress with pink hem was unflattering.

Vassily Sinaisky's debut conducting the San Francisco Opera Orchestra was not particularly striking. There were times when the orchestra and singers were not quite synchronized, but this will probably improve as time goes on. The chorus sounded lovely, and more engaged with the work than many of the principals, though again there were times when they were not quite with the orchestra.

In general, the singing was pretty though not captivating. Catherine Cook was brash as the Innkeeper, she started off a bit harshly but did settle down by the end of her scene. Though his voice is beautiful, Vitalij Kowaljow was not terribly commanding as Pimen. Vladimir Ognovenko (Varlaam) sounded a bit constrained but was fine. Likewise John Uhlenhopp (Prince Shuisky) and Vsevolod Grivnov (Grigory) gave perfectly good performances.

The Adlers all did well, Kenneth Kellogg made the most of his small role as Nikitch, and Daveda Karanas had a strong debut as the Nurse. Ji Young Yang's bright tones were appealing for her role as Xenia. Best of all was Andrew Bidlack as the Simpleton, this is the first time he has really shone on the main-stage. His sensitive vocal portrayal was the most gorgeous part of the entire opera.

Samuel Ramey was a fairly wobbly Boris, though the warm resonance of his voice can be effective. The stage directions for him were laughable, he throws himself to the ground more than once and even rolls down the raked stage. He did seem committed to his character, at least.

* Tattling * 
The audience whispered and talked during the music. There were no cellular phone rings, but at least one watch alarm on the hour near the back of the orchestra. Also, at least one person in Row X of the orchestra level was using a flashlight to read the program during the opera.

In the program, Scene 2 of the synopsis is missing a period at the end of the last sentence.


ENO's 2008-2009 Season

September 20- October 28 2008: Cavalleria Rusticana / Pagliacci
September 22- October 10 2008: The Barber of Seville
October 10- November 12 2008: Partenope
October 22- November 22 2008: Aida
November 10- December 1 2008: Boris Godunov
November 27-30 2008: Riders to the Sea
June 12- July 10 2009: Madam Butterfly

Rosemary Joshua sings the title role of Partenope at English National Opera next season.

2008-2009 Season | Official Site


SF Opera's 2008-2009 Season

September 5-27 2008: Simon Boccanegra
September 6 2008: Angela Gheorghiu in Concert
September 13- October 3 2008: The Bonesetter's Daughter
September 23- October 12 2008: Die Tote Stadt
October 15-31 2008: Idomeneo
October 15-November 15 2008: Boris Godunov
October 29- November 26 2008: L'Elisir d'Amore
November 16- December 7 2008: La Bohème
December 11-14 2008: Three Decembers
January 10, 2009: Salvatore Licitra in Concert
May 29 2009: Verdi's Requiem
June 2-26 2009: Tosca
June 9-27 2009: Porgy and Bess
June 13- July 5 2009: La Traviata

San Francisco Opera's "Grand and Glorious" 86th season was revealed today, there are 78 performances of 11 operas, running from September 5, 2008 to July 5, 2009. Many big names this year, as promised. Angela Gheorghiu returns in La Bohème, Anna Netrebko in La Traviata, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Simon Boccanegra for the first time since he sang Germont in 2004. Samuel Ramey will sing in the title role of Boris Godunov and Frederica von Stade stars in the West Coast premiere of Three Decembers.

Another world premiere this year, no Baroque opera, three operas in English, none in French, but finally an opera in Russian. Inva Mula, the voice of the blue space alien singing Lucia di Lammermoor in The Fifth Element, will have her SF Opera debut as Adina in L'Elisir d'Amore. She sings opposite of Ramón Vargas.

I am most looking forward to Kurt Streit and Alice Coote in Idomeneo. I am glad to see that Joseph Calleja is having his San Francisco Opera debut as Rodolfo in La Bohème.

Summer of 2009 will be the first time in three years that I won't feel compelled to spend every spare moment at the War Memorial Opera House. I have seen the Mansouri/Bosquet Tosca several times, though I do find this opera to be one of my favorites by Puccini. Porgy and Bess is intriguing, but I doubt I'll become obsessed. Though La Traviata will be great, and I'm glad it is a new production (from Los Angeles Opera), I am not holding my breath either. Puccini, Gershwin, and Verdi will get people into the opera house, but I'd rather hear Mozart, Gluck, or Händel.

However, perhaps I should go to Bayreuth in 2009, since I will have the time. It is interesting that there will be such a large gap between the San Francisco Opera this production of Das Rheingold and whole Ring Cycle, which is slated for 2011. I had complained about too many Rings, given that LA and Seattle both have them on the schedule for next year. It was reported that Donald Runnicles would end his tenure as music director here with the Ring, just has he began his career here.

Press Release [PDF] | Season Brochure [PDF] | 2008-2009 Official Site | Examiner Article


The Kirov in Costa Mesa, CA

* Notes*
It was my intention to go to the Kirov's production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, which ran from 6-11. October in Orange County. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, but I did make it to the matinee performance of Boris Godunov yesterday. They did the 1869 version of the work with no intermission, it lasted a mere 140 minutes.

This Boris Godunov co-production with La Scala was directed by Victor Kramer. Georgy Tsypin's set had an underwater theme, the changes of set were fairly minimal, screens might hide parts of the stage, scenery descended from above, and chorus members pushed out props. There were four columns, two had enormous fish scales on them, and the other two had echinoderms, bubbles, and shells. There were also various garlic-shaped lamps that looked somewhat like human-sized anemones with sea urchin shells. At one point some descended all the way to the ground and spun like tops. It was quite amusing, though the audience did not seem to react much to this absurdity, though some number of people left all together. Many of Tatiana Noginova's costumes had reflective qualities here and there, they seemed a bit random, the chorus seemed bundled in ski jackets, the daughter of Boris wears a somewhat medieval gown made of burned-out white velvet and a beaded headdress that one can find at an Egyptian import store.

The singing was uninspired, though the choral parts were pleasing. Nikolay Putilin was not bad as the title character, he had better volume than most of the others, but not a great deal of stamina. Anastasia Kalagina's wailing was nearly intolerable, at least her part as Xenia is small. Yevgeny Akimov was a plaintive fool, he was confined to a garlic-shaped cage on hidden wheels. Lyubov Sokolova's warm tones were a welcome relief in Scene 4, she also had good volume.

* Tattling *
I was under the impression that the Orange County Performing Arts Center had a new hall, so I was somewhat nervous about finding it, but after finding the box office and stepping inside, it seemed to me this was the same hall I had been in many times before. Apparently, I must have gotten a specially-priced rush ticket, because I was given the choice of a 20 or 10 dollar ticket, instead of the usual $50-225. The seat I got was eight rows back in the center of the orchestra section. Also, later I learned that there is a new concert hall at the Performing Arts Center, but it is a smaller than the main stage, and opera performances still take place at the latter location.

The people to either side of me were completely silent throughout, but the people behind had to switch seats, and the people in front kept whispering until they just decided to leave.

One person's ticket was cut off on one side, and the usher could not figure out where his seat was and told him to just sit in Row H and keep moving down if someone had the seat he was in. By the time the opera started he must have been in Seat 23.