Arts & Events

MTT Makes A Mish-Mash of Mussorgsky’s BORIS GODUNOV

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday June 19, 2018 - 09:36:00 PM

One thing I certainly won’t miss once Michael Tilson Thomas steps down as music director of San Francisco Symphony is his misguided penchant for gussying up the music with ill-conceived visual effects. Yet again MTT hooked up with Los Angeles-based video artist James Darrah, this time in three performances, June 14-17, of the opera Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky. What MTT finds in the work of James Darrah I simply can’t fathom. I find Darrah’s video embellishments of classical music and opera puerile at best, and often quite distracting. (The one time I found Darrah’s imagery effective was in the semi-staged production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes.) This time around, with James Darrah serving as both video artist and director, we were subjected to Darrah’s usual overuse of the Davies Hall aisles for gratuitous entrances and exits of the singers, plus Darrah’s random and extraneous video imagery. (The only image that fit the story of Boris Godunov was Darrah’s inclusion of what looked like Russian Orthodox saints depicted in frescos on the walls of a monastery near Moscow; and even with these images, why in the world did Darrah abruptly switch them from color to black and White?) As I’ve said many times before, it’s a pity MTT won’t let the music simply stand on its own. 

Musically, this was a dark but compelling Boris Godunov. With a cast of mostly Russian singers, this Boris had deep roots in the world of Russian music, both in Mussorgsky’s day (1869) and in our day. Many of the current singers have distinguished themselves in these roles in major productions in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Using Mussorgsky’s original score of 1869 rather than the composer’s revised version of 1872, MTT opted for the more austere plotline of Boris Godunov based on a play by Alexander Pushkin. Thus, this historical opera which is set in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, depicts the somewhat reluctant rise of Boris to the Tsar’s throne as well as the intrigues of influential boyars and the eventual emotional breakdown of Boris and his pitiful death. However, instead of ending the opera with the death of Boris where Mussorgsky’s original score ended, MTT tacked on Mussorgsky’s Krony Forest scene that ends the 1872 version. Some of the worst excesses of James Darrah’s video embellishments came in this tacked-on ending.  

In the role of Boris, Stanislav Trofimov sang movingly, using his stentorian bass to convey Boris’s ability to command, yet also allowing his voice to reveal Boris’s more vulnerable side. Also outstanding was tenor Yevgeny Akimov as the intriguing boyar Prince Shuisky. Akimov was quite effective at bringing off the way his character publicly professed loyalty to Boris while secretly working to undermine him. Baritone Aleksey Bodganov ably sang the role of the pompous bureaucrat Shchelkalov; and bass Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev was outstanding as the old monk and historical chronicler Pimen. As Grigory, tenor Sergei Skorokhodov effectively portrayed the young novice troubled by dreams of the murdered Dimitri. Bass Vyacheslav Pochapsky was effective as the somewhat dull-witted Varlaam, and tenor Ben Jones sang the role of Missail, Varlaam’s sidekick, in the scene at the inn near the Lithuanian border. Catherine Cook sang the character-role of the innkeeper, effectively portraying this woman’s realistic view of things as well as her empathy. Boris’s young son, Fyodor, was sung by mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet, and Silvie Jensen sang Fyodor’s nurse. The Holy Fool, whose plaintive lament for the fate of the Russian people brings the tacked-on final scene to a close, was ably sung by tenor Stanislav Mostovy. Mussorgsky’s score is edgy and austere, and conductor MTT led the orchestra in a gripping account of Boris Godunov. Pity MTT couldn’t just let the music speak for itself.