San Diego Opera’s “Boris Godunov”


San Diego: January 27, 2007

Review by David Gregson. All photos by Ken Howard (ID’s at bottom of page).

Although it exists in more than one performing version, Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is probably unique. You would be hard pressed to find another major opera in which a basso is not only the central character, but virtually the only character of any enduring interest whatsoever. In fact, some prominent bassos have appeared from time to time (and presumably still do) in extremely successful concert versions of "Scenes from Boris Godunov.” Accompanied by chorus and orchestra, the singing protagonist goes it all alone – from coronation to madness and death – without any interference from those annoying “secondary” characters.

It is true, of course, that many admirers of Boris Godunov are fond of saying, “The real hero is the Russian people.” In other words, the highly prominent chorus is the main character in what today is widely regarded as the quintessential Russian opera. Czar Boris himself, after all, is a despot and a child murderer, a fine candidate for what we now would call an anti-hero.

It’s difficult to argue with this chorus-as-true-hero idea, especially when the choruses are so numerous and impressive. Performances of the work during the period of Soviet communism would have been impossible if Boris had robbed the spotlight from the people. Conveniently, the long-used 1872 revision of the opera ends with the Simpleton bemoaning the fate of Mother Russia.

Only over fairly recent decades have audiences in Russia and elsewhere become used to the so-called “original” Boris Godunov — the seven-scene version Mussorgsky composed in 1869, only to have producers reject it, chiefly for its lack of sex appeal. The opera had no important female role and no love interest. Returning to the proverbial drawing board, Mussorgsky dutifully provided these elements along with numerous other expansions, eliminations and emendations (the 1872 version). The producers accepted this much longer, much grander nine-scene Boris – one that makes better dramatic sense than the earlier version, if only because the role of Grigori the False Pretender is greatly expanded. His part is totally dropped after the third scene in the original and Grigori continues his revolutionary activities strictly offstage.

The opera’s transformative gestation does not end here, of course. The master of orchestration, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsokov, subsequently enhanced and adjusted the score – and it’s frankly a masterpiece; however, announcing a preference for the original, shorter version is now fashionable and San Diego Opera takes that direction. (It’s a much shorter, much less expensive route, among other things.) In any event, thanks to modern scholarship, producers have a giant toy box of Boris scenes to play with and rearrange as they wish. It’s a Build It Yourself Boris Kit, so to speak. Boris is one of several “modular” operas keeping the august company of Verdi’s Don Carlo and Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann.

Indeed, San Diego Opera has delved into that toy box and come up with the “Song of the Duck,” a piece sung by the Hostess of the Inn in the second version — but not in the first version. One imagines the ever-campy (and ever marvelous) mezzo-soprano Judith Christin telling Ian Campbell (San Diego Opera’s general and artistic director), “You’re not going to bring me to San Diego to play the Hostess without that duck song!” It’s the sort of comic shtick she is so wonderfully good at (plucking the duck ferociously, feathers flying), so thank goodness it’s back in the score. But folks – this is not a number in the “original version.” It’s one of those "modular" bits just mentioned.

It’s easy to imagine any number of reasons why the distinguished Italian basso Ferruccio Furlanetto came to San Diego to sing this Boris, and one might not want to discount his love of golf from his motivations – but whatever brought him here, thank God (and Ian Campbell) it did! Though Mussorgsky’s Czar can quite legitimately be overacted in a virtually declamatory style in the mode of Feodor Chaliapin (the great basso who helped bring Boris world fame), it is a joy to hear such a rich Italianate sound rolling forth in unrelenting lyricism. This is Boris as bel canto – and in the greatest of bel canto traditions, too. This is the kind of bel canto in which the soul of the singer is stripped bare in floods of beautiful singing. And oddly enough, even if you cannot understand a word of Russian, you can tell that Furlanetto’s diction is superb.

Furlanetto seems to have been born to sing Boris.

And though they walk in his giant shadow, the rest of the characters hold their own thanks to some excellent casting. American tenor Allan Glassman is a delightfully oily Shuisky, and even ends up getting the throne of Russia in this production (thanks to a gratuitous codicil added by Mansouri – who must leave his mark, after all); Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow is a superbly brooding literary/priestly presence – the most boring monk in all of opera, appearing in the last scene just long enough to drive Boris and all of the rest of us nuts; American tenor Jay Hunter Morris is an excellent Grigori, singing this thankless part more attractively than is usual for the role; and Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov is quite good as the befuddled drunken Monk, Varlaam. Though in costume he looks the role perfectly, American tenor Doug Jones is a little understated vocally in the crucial and moving "bit part" of the Simpleton.

Coached by Timothy Todd Simmons, the San Diego Opera chorus fills its obligations nobly, and as far as a listener can tell without score in hand, the San Diego Symphony plays Mussorgsky’s spare orchestrations in the expected fully professional manner.

What is missing – or rather, what was missing on opening night, was any sense of urgency – or indeed of any visceral excitement whatsoever. The playing was languid, casual, and lacking incision. Nothing had any bite or energy, and in the first scene, the sense of everything trailing off into incipient nothingness was given a visual complement in some thoroughly uninspired stage pictures involving the Russian masses. One got the sense, both musically and visually, of an aimless milling about. And what’s worse, the energy level continued to subside throughout the entire first half of the opera. The Coronation Scene, usually wonderfully colorful and exciting, was just dull. Those ostinato figures in the orchestra often propel the drama forward. But not under conductor Valéry Ryvkin, regrettably — and what makes his failure so thoroughly remarkable is he is allegedly an assistant to the Mariinsky’s presiding genius, conductor Valery Gergiev, whose exciting recording of the 1869 version of Boris can be heard on a Philips CD. I can only imagine Ryvkin was having some problems of which the general public is unaware.

Puzzling, too, is the failure of Lotfi Mansouri (an old pro if there ever was one) to get out of textbook staging and give us anything compelling to look at. Lord knows, the costumes are just fine. They offer all the period opulence one could wish for. As for the sets — all of them little more than token bits of architecture — would not be so boring to watch if we had some involving stage action up front. These sets, by the way, do feature one really lovely piece – a golden backdrop of glowing Russian icons. A front curtain along the same lines might be nice, since this production further loses rhythm between scenes when the audience must contemplate the passing time in darkness.

To sum it all up, then – when Furlanetto is on stage, this production comes to life. When he is not on stage, a good cast and chorus are up against second-rate conducting and stage direction – and everything goes dead as a rusty Russian doornail.

Photo IDs.

1. Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto sings his first American Boris in San Diego Opera’s production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Photo © Ken Howard

2.American tenor Jay Hunter Morris is Dimitri (Grigori) and Ukranian bass Vitalij Kowaljow is Pimen in San Diego Opera’s production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Photo © Ken Howard

3. American tenor Allan Glassman is Shuisky in San Diego Opera’s production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Photo © Ken Howard

4. Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto sings his first American Boris in San Diego Opera’s production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Photo © Ken Howard

———————
Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (Version of 1869)
Boris — Ferruccio Furlanetto
Dimitri — Jay Hunter Morris
Pimen –Vitalij Kowaljow
Shuisky — Allan Glassman
Varlaam — Mikhail Svetlov
Missail — Joseph Frank
Hostess of the Inn — Judith Christin
Feodor — Lisa Agazzi
Simpleton — Doug Jones
The Nurse — Martha Jane Howe
Conductor — Valéry Ryvkin
Director — Lotfi Mansouri
Scenic designer — Robert Dahlstrom / Wolfram Skalicki
Costumes — Malabar Costumes
Ligthing — Todd Hensley
Wigs and makeup — Steven W. Bryant
Chorus Master — Timothy Todd Simmons
Supertitles — Scott Heuman
Diction coach — Valentina Schukin

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