Samuel Ramey

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.

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

Simon Boccanegra

Simon Boccanegra at San Francisco Opera was excellent. Samuel Ramey (Jacopo Fiesco) and Paolo Gavanelli (Simon Boccanegra) were especially amazing. We got to see Carol Vaness again, who was in Don Giovanni as Donna Elvira and Tosca (as Tosca). She was the sole soprano in the production, and she was, predictably, awful. However, the opera is more focused on the lower voices, the main parts are baritone and bass. All and all it was a wonderful opera, the kind that gives you shivers.