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Searching for Russia's soul, then and now, in 'Boris Godunov'

Searching for Russia's soul, then and now, in 'Boris Godunov'
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" with the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus. (Cory Weaver / San Francisco Symphony)

If you want to understand the Russia of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin — and who doesn’t? — it doesn’t hurt to pay some attention to the tsar Boris Fyodorovich Godunov, in particular the opera about him by Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky.

The middle names matter. The Russian people convey personality in the use of first and middle names. That's part of the soul of Russia, and for better and too often worse, no leaders obsess over the national soul quite like they do in Russia.

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The people proved the edifying essence of the San Francisco Symphony’s semi-staged “Boris Godunov,” led by Michael Tilson Thomas last weekend. Yes, this great opera centers on the tortured soul (that word again) of Boris, who was tsar from 1598 until his death in 1605, after which the country descended into what became known as the Time of Troubles.

The troubles began, though, with Boris, who may have (and probably did) order the assassination of Dimitri, Ivan the Terrible’s son, after that tsar’s death. Boris was politically savvy enough to refuse the throne unless the people demanded it. He was politically savvy enough to make a show of providing for the people to win their favor. He was Russian enough, at least in Mussorgsky’s opera, to have a conscience. He stood for something, and his operatic death is historic tragedy.

Tilson Thomas’ idea was not to overtly update “Boris,” as opera productions often cannot resist doing these days. Instead, he and his production team — director James Darrah, video designer Adam Larsen and the scenic and costume design team of Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock — turned for inspiration to Andrei Tarovsky’s celebrated 1966 film, “Andrei Rublev.” The epic is about the Russian painter, who lived a century before Boris, and how his life and the religious icons he painted reflected the eternal political and artistic Russian soul.

Davies Symphony Hall was therefore transformed into a kind of decaying Russian cathedral, with the orchestra in the center. History was represented as layers. The stage was scattered with Russian flyers and books at the start, and they all went up in flames on video projections at the end. Costumes — ageless monk’s robes, ornate ceremonial court dress, boxy Soviet suits, modern down jackets — suited the centuries.

The opera allows for assembly. Mussorgsky’s 1869 first version is a spare, two-hour work that was shockingly pointed politically, a portrait of a tsar for whom the thrall of power cannot overcome the buffeting by a fickle public, court intrigue and his own guilt. Mussorgsky’s score was grand but grating. There was grandeur but not grandiosity. It portrayed men’s work, with little room for women.

When the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and the government censors rejected it, Mussorgsky came back three years later with an expanded grand opera, edges softened, women and romance included, and that became the foundation for Russian opera. Still, over the years, new orchestrations by Rimsky-Korsakov and by Shostakovich came along to change the musical character to harmonize with the times.

These days, you make your own version. As many now do, Tilson Thomas stuck with Mussorgsky’s original, although he removed a crucial scene in the fourth act in front of the Cathedral of St. Basil in which the people turn on Boris, who takes surprising counsel from a simpleton. Tilson Thomas did, however, end with the final version’s forest scene, in which the violent crowd sides with an imposter claiming to be Dimitri, and the last word is given to the simpleton prophesizing a future of sorrow for the Russian people.

Tilson Thomas’ approach of putting the orchestra in the center of his staged productions has its advantages and disadvantages. The chorus was placed on seats above the stage, seen through a cutout of the backdrop, with a small troop of actors and dancers onstage representing the people. The stage itself included space in front of the orchestra as well as a platform in the back.

Acoustically and dramatically this could be a problem with continual changes in sound and intimacy. But the musical prominence of the orchestra and chorus added a sonic spectacle, especially in the grand crowd scenes.

The large cast was largely Russian, and many largely did their traditional Mariinsky or Bolshoi thing. Stanislav Trofimov, the stunning Boris, has starred lately at the Mariinsky, where the house production for the last three decades has remained the gripping one that director Tarovsky made himself. Boris’ political foe, the Boyar Prince Shuisky, was the powerful tenor Yevgeny Akimov, who has graduated from singing the Simpleton when Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted a concert performance of “Boris” at the Hollywood Bowl in 2007.

Still, it was Tilson Thomas’ vision that dominated. He took a stately approach. Bells and orchestral brilliance brightened the hall when needed. Mainly, though, an understated melancholy from the orchestra pervaded the atmosphere as the monk Pimen (the sonorous bass Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev) gave a perspective on Russian history or as Boris attempted to groom his son Fyodor (the ardently expressive mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet) to become a wise leader. All of this made Boris’ death almost unbearably painful, the life leaving him representing the life leaving the country.

In the final scene, Darrah put the public violence on graphic display, but not Tilson Thomas. The orchestra kept its distance from the drama. A weariness had set it, setting the stage for four centuries of Russian struggle to hold together a country ever in search of its soul.

So what does this tell us about Vladimir Vladimirovich priorities? We should not forget that he has been an avid supporter of the Mariinsky ever since his days as a vice mayor of St. Petersburg in the early 1990s. He knows his Russian people and his Russian opera.

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