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`Boris Godunov' a season debut to remember

Ferruccio Furlanetto is a commanding presence in leading a top-drawer production from San Diego Opera.

January 29, 2007|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Ferruccio Furlanetto sang his first U.S. Boris Godunov to open the San Diego Opera season Saturday at the downtown Civic Theatre. It was a resounding success.

The first Italian to sing the title role of Mussorsky's opera at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the work premiered, Furlanetto is fondly remembered for his commanding, nuanced Philip II in Verdi's "Don Carlo" for Los Angeles Opera in September.

Here he had even more opportunity to show the range of his dramatic and vocal strengths. His Boris was strongly detailed, youthfully powerful, persuasive in the warmth of the family scenes as well as in his imperial authority and in the progression of a guilt-ridden conscience that leads to death. Interestingly, Furlanetto also made a convincing case for Boris' achievements during his reign.

The Italian basso dominated a strong cast of principals. Perhaps most impressive among them was Vitalij Kowaljow, making his company debut as the old monk Pimen, the chronicler of Russian history. A winner in Placido Domingo's 1999 Operalia competition, this Ukrainian bass compelled interest in the sometimes overlong monologues, rolling out beautiful Russian tones and always sustaining stage presence.

In his company debut as the drunken renegade friar Varlaam, Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov matched him for dark-toned beauty of language, singing the robust tune about Ivan the Terrible's conquest of Kazan with zest and joy.

Allan Glassman made an unctuous, devious Prince Shuisky, crowning his evil by ascending the throne after barring Boris' son Feodor (a sweet Lisa Agazzi) from taking it. Jay Hunter Morris, as the false Dimitri, sang with tight, brassy focus but fell a bit short in heroic tones.

In the smaller roles, Judith Christin made a comic, engaging innkeeper, Martha Jane Howe was a sober nurse, Inna Dukach was the overwrought Xenia. Joseph Frank was the bewildered Missail. Doug Jones sang the Simpleton with appropriate poignancy. Louis Lebherz did double duty as the menacing border guard and policeman.

The company was presenting the original 1869 version of an opera that has a tangled history. Mussorgsky presented this version, which consisted of seven scenes, to the Maryinsky, which rejected it presumably because it lacked a conventional love story but also perhaps for political reasons. It was considered inadvisable to show the mental degeneration of a tsar on stage.

The composer revised the work in 1871, adding the required love interest -- which also cannily incorporated Polish-Russian and Eastern Orthodox-Catholic conflicts -- and altered some scenes. He made a final version in 1874, which among other changes closed the opera not with Boris' death as in the original but with the Simpleton's poignant lament for Russia and its woes.

The first version has been criticized for its monochromatic color and ostensibly for certain musical ineptness. But there was no justification for that here. Under the loving and sympathetic conducting of Valery Ryvkin, a native of St. Petersburg now artistic director of Opera Santa Barbara, the work took on almost a chamber opera quality, an opera rightfully dominated by singers, not the orchestra.

Ryvkin and company revealed how Mussorgsky used his palette of orchestral colors sparingly and tellingly, with a sense of theme and character appropriateness.

The biggest orchestra climax was reserved for the scene in front of St. Basil's Cathedral in which the starving people's hopes mount that the false Dimitri will depose Boris. Unfortunately, the offstage amplified bells during the coronation scene misfired by overwhelming the orchestra.

Veteran stage director Lotfi Mansouri, former general director of San Francisco Opera, moved and grouped the characters for maximum economic effect. The tableau at the end of the St. Basil scene, with snow gently falling on the Simpleton and the people, was moving.

The production, originally from the Canadian Opera Company, incorporated spare, efficient unit sets created by Wolfram Skalicki and redesigned by Robert Dahlstrom. The icon drop, illuminated from behind by lighting designer Todd Hensley, made an impressive effect. The weighty period costumes were from Malabar Ltd. In Toronto.

The chorus, trained by Timothy Todd Simmons, made a strong, focused sound.

This is not the familiar, sumptuous Rimsky-Korsakov version, nor the bleaker Shostakovich edition. If you can live without the Polish scenes and the rich orchestrations, this is the one to see.


`Boris Godunov'

Where: San Diego Opera, Civic Theatre, 1100 3rd Ave., San Diego

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Price: $27 to $152

Contact: (619) 533-7000.

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