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Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2007 | It’s not every day you see a 57-year-old intentionally hurl himself down steep stairs. But Italian bass and crowd favorite Ferruccio Furlanetto did just that in the title role of “Boris Godunov” and stole the show at the San Diego Opera season’s opening night.
Seen in last season’s San Diego Opera’s production of “The Barber of Seville,” Furlanetto made his American role debut as the tragic Russian Czar.
Originally orchestrated by Modest Mussorgsky, “Boris Godunov” was altered considerably after his death by contemporary Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov who found the piece substandard, dissonant and lacking rhythmic patterns.
Although performed by San Diego Opera twice before, this year’s production of Boris Godunov uses Mussorgsky’s original 1869 orchestration for the first time here in San Diego.
Based on Alexander Pushkin’s drama set in the late 1500s, “Boris Godunov” examines the political intrigue and scandalous struggle for the Russian throne as only a classic opera can do. When Ivan the Terrible’s young son and heir Dmitri is murdered, the eventual fate of the throne is in question. Boris Godunov claims the crown amidst rumors that he himself murdered Dmitri. Godunov tries in vain to win over the people of Russia, but there is famine; peasants are weary and the boyars (wealthy landowners) are suspicious of his attempts at popularity.
When a young monk named Grigori (Jay Hunter Morris) learns that he would be the same age of Dmitri had he lived, he breaks his vows and journeys toward Moscow with a vengeance. As he moves closer to the Czar, rumors of Boris’ involvement in Dmitri’s suspicious murder spread, torturing the guilt-ridden Czar.
With a chorus of 90+, lavish sets, ornate costumes and many detailed props, San Diego Opera’s production is visually stunning. Just a few examples of the richness of the artistic production: a group of pilgrims carrying gilded-edged religious icons that reflect copper light pass through a somber crowd of peasants, the boyars’ long beards and rococo robes and a clock tower with moving parts.
Perhaps most famous for the ornate coronation scene, San Diego Opera’s version does not disappoint. Separated by the triumphant pathway of the new Czar Boris, the boyars and the peasants are also divided by their social classes but all are invited to the celebratory feast.
The cast is, quite simply, superb. Furlanetto’s Boris successfully embodies the regal Czar, slowly overcome by tormenting guilt. Furlanetto really hits his stride in Act II as madness descends upon the Czar. His final death knell, with the dramatic fall from the throne (literally and figuratively) does not lapse into sentimentality. Truly astounding in his own right, Furlanetto is world-renowned.
“Boris Godunov” has a large number of principals, or main roles, all exemplary and too many to showcase here. A joy to hear and see, American tenor Jay Hunter Morris handles the role of restless Grigori, the Pretender, with adeptness as he embarks on his fateful journey. Vitalij Kowaljow makes his SDO debut as elderly Pimen, singing with poise and assuredness. Lisa Agazzi convinced me totally in the role of Boris’ young, compassionate son Feodor. Boris’ daughter Xenia, played by Inna Dukach, laments the loss of her recent bridegroom with sadness, heartbreak and a lovely timbre.
Reminiscent of a Shakespearean tragedy, “Boris Godunov” contains a bit of comic relief, as in Scene Four, Act I, which takes place in a remote Inn where Grigori and his traveling companions, two comical, drunk monks, take refuge. Judith Christin (also seen in “The Barber of Seville” here last season) wonderfully warbles her innkeeper’s lonely love song to the duck she is plucking (using a hilarious duck-prop). The production’s lighting set the mood with the tactical use of shadows and focused light, most notably during Boris’ mad, nightmarish scene.
Transformations occur at every set change — which is amazingly quick between scenes considering the hulking backdrops that must be moved.
With its sumptuous costumes and sets, superior cast and a consummate Ferruccio Furlanetto, “Boris Godunov” deserves high praise and offers excitement for things to come from this opera season.