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OPERA REVIEW

In 'Boris,' an uneasy alliance

September 08, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

"Boris" at the Bowl. The phrase has a nice ring. And ring, ring, ring Mussorgsky's riveting, tintinnabulating score did Thursday night at the Hollywood Bowl when Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a Russian cast from the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg for a concert performance of "Boris Godunov."

Salonen was conducting the opera for the first time, and to say he made it easy for himself would overstate a major challenge. But the singers, all "Boris" veterans, offered a safety net. And Salonen chose Mussorgsky's tight, original version of the opera from 1869, which contains about two hours of music and concentrates on the demented czar, who died in 1605.

The composer later rewrote and expanded the opera by a third, and that version, or a variant, is how "Boris" is mainly known. But conductor Valery Gergiev alternates between early and late "Boris" at the Mariinsky, so the singers were on familiar territory. It was the early version that Gergiev brought to the Orange County Performing Arts Center last year.

Salonen's concept is strongly orchestral. He has a flair for Mussorgsky, and he used the composer's original orchestration rather than a later adaptation by Rimsky-Korsakov or Shostakovich. The opera begins grandly. The second scene is Boris' coronation in front of the Kremlin. The bells clang and peal. The chorus resplendently sings of Boris' glory.

Salonen revealed all this in illuminating layers. He was often slow, although he sped up excitingly when the drama needed it. He gave the raw colors of Mussorgsky's orchestral palette space in which to vibrate. The result was simultaneously primitive and modern, Mussorgsky as clear predecessor to Stravinsky.

Even so, there was a lot of music to get through, and the evening was long. The singers, who read from scores, made little attempt to enact their roles. Watched up close on video screens, with subtitles, they appeared not unlike cool, calculating modern politicians. I began to imagine a Putin-like quality in Mikhail Kit's Boris, who, during the early scenes, is a consummate politician. His later madness then seemed a bit more Yeltsin. Kit's was a striking portrayal, firmly sung.

Overall, the singing was impressive. Gennady Bezzubenkov brought a woolly sound to Pimen, the soldier turned monk who recounts Boris' early crime of murdering his way to the throne. But the bass, who also sang the role in Orange County, seemed duller out of costume than in. Alexei Tanovitski, yet another bass, was Varlaam, a drunken wandering monk. Here is a young singer full of life who will be worth watching.

A large bearded tenor, Yevgeny Akimov, as the simpleton who accosts the czar, made every attempt to steal the show. He was loud, in Boris' face and wonderfully Russian.

The women's roles in this version of the opera are small. But Tatiana Borodina and Maria Matveyeva as the czar's two children; Nadezhda Vassilieva, their nurse; and Olga Savova, a hostess, were excellent. Andrei Ilyushnikov was the scheming pretender to the throne, Grigory. Nikolai Gassiev the scheming Prince Shuisky.

Somehow, though, these Russians and Salonen seemed on different planes -- often parallel, occasionally intersecting. Much of this was surely the result of limited rehearsal as well as the difficulty of creating drama in a large amphitheater.

Salonen had other problems as well. The chorus is a major component of the opera, the voice of the people and the voice of nasty politicians. A tentative Pacific Chorale was ill at ease with both music and text.

Still, moments rang out magnificently, and throughout, Salonen found details and inner lines worth highlighting that others miss. But he will need more experience with this great music to convey its dramatic scope. Ideally, he needs an opera house in which to put his ideas to better practice and bring "Boris" to life. Thursday was a start.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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