Orchestra rings, drama static in SF Symphony’s ‘Boris Godunov’

With booming voices and plentiful political peril, the San Francisco Symphony’s “Boris Godunov” feels oddly unsettling.

The semi-staged production of Mussorgsky’s 19th-century opera based on the life of the 16th-century Russian ruler admittedly isn’t as glitzy or, literally, fiery as Wagner’s hefty “Ring” cycle onstage across the street at the War Memorial in a highly touted San Francisco Opera presentation.

Still, the sounds in “Boris Godunov” — including guest Russian vocalists, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Pacific Boychoir and always impeccable orchestra — were impressive on Thursday night in the first of three performances at Davies Symphony Hall.

Music director Michael Tilson Thomas led the symphony, a dozen soloists, Ragnar Bohlin’s symphony chorus and Andrew Brown’s choir of youngsters, who made the most of the low, often dark, score and accompanying confusing story, particularly for those who aren’t Russian or historians.

Mussorgsky, who wrote the music and libretto, was inspired by Alexander Pushkin’s 1827 play detailing the dynastic “Time of Troubles” in Russia from 1598-1605 following the death of Ivan the Terrible; his minister Godunov reluctantly came to power under suspicious circumstances, having been accused of murdering Ivan’s young son and heir to the throne.

Directed by James Darrah, with lights and video designs by Pablo Santiago, Adam Larsen and Hana S. Kim, this busy production (with dozens of people onstage) does little to clarify the cloudy plot with seven disjointed scenes or deeply explore Godunov’s varied government and church rivals; it’s difficult even to differentiate between the characters, let alone understand their motivations.

Russian bass Stanislav Trofimov, a Mariinsky Theatre singer making his local debut in the title role, effectively registers anguish, yet, despite fine singing by tenors Yevgeny Akimov and Sergei Skorokhodov, baritone Aleksey Bogdanov and basses Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev and Vyacheslav Pochapsky as the boys and men Boris comes up against, the proceedings don’t add up to crisis, leaving the audience unmoved.

What resonates most is the fickle public reaction: When the crowds of dancers and choristers (whose strains are the opera’s most touching, as are the gloriously ringing bells played by Victor Avdienko from an upper level of the hall) at first hail Boris, then later disavow him, the sentiment is clear, and timeless.

An unnecessarily bloody torture scene at the conclusion feels contemporary, as are the modern costumes by Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jay Mock; both give the production a tone strangely reminiscent of a 21st century action movie.

REVIEW
Boris Godunov
Presented by San Francisco Symphony
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. June 15, 2 p.m. June 17
Tickets: $35 to $159
Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org

The political situation in Russia is despairing at the conclusion of “Boris Godunov” at Davies Symphony Hall. (Courtesy Cory Weaver)

Leslie Katz

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