Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Making Nice with Boris

November 05, 2008

Samuel Ramey as Boris Godunov
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2008

I have admittedly been slow to comment on San Francisco Opera’s production of Boris Godunov that I saw on Sunday, but haven’t got around to writing about it due to a number of admittedly frivolous distractions like voting and such. The other obstacle was that the production in and of itself was pleasant but not what it could have been. Like much of what the company has offered this season, it’s painfully unassuming, adding little to the opera experience. It's a production that doesn’t get in the way, but it’s not helpful either, which I suppose is what some people want, but I think opera can and should be much more.

This Stein Winge staging has a barren wooden slope that rises to form a back wall with a seemingly endless number of hidden doors. Minimal amounts of furniture are hauled around by the cast with just a few oh-so-gentle touches to suggest that there is something edgy about the whole proceeding like the giant map/blanket that covers the majority of the floor in Act II. The simpleton remains on stage throughout almost the entire opera to reinforce his significance. While this deconstructivist approach can lead to some surprisingly big moments, even the biggest set scene, Boris’ Act I coronation seemed less awe-inspiring than it should. In contrast the comic scenes are played almost like a television show. There were the Gokley trademark “gorgeous period costumes" except, of course, for the multitude of peasants who were the cleanest bunch of pastel and beige-clad ragamuffins I’ve ever seen.

The star, of course, is Samuel Ramey, a living legend in the autumn of his career. He can ride on technique for days, but his Boris is not what it was and I found him sloppy at times. Vitalij Kowaljow made an appearance as Pimen, his second with the company this Fall and was again very impressive. The orchestra under Vassily Sinaisky was solid if not earth-shattering. I often felt the orchestra was timid in some of the more grand moments of Mussorgsky’s score. But maybe it was just me. Or maybe it was the near sold-out crowd, which seemed odd after a weekend of undersold performances. Of course Sunday was the only matinée of the entire run, which may had some influence. There are three more performances.


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