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Review: Festival's complicated undertaking of Boris Godunov

By Hillary Bowler

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, July 13 2011 6:42 p.m. MDT

Craig Hart (lying on the ground) as a dead Boris Godunov in the final scene of the opera. Elena Midlina as Feodor, Boris' son, waiting for his fate after his father's death.

Karen Almond

"Boris Godunov," by the Utah Festival Operan and Musical Theatre, through Aug. 5; running time: is 2 hours, 32 minutes (including a 20-minute intermission); for tickets visit http://ufomt.org/.

LOGAN – You may want to hit Google before seeing the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre’s production of “Boris Godunov.” The production was a complicated gamble, and UFOMT handled it masterfully.

It’s not a show for the faint of musical heart. “Boris Godunov” is a Russian opera written by Modest Mussorgsky and adapted from a drama by Alexander Pushkin. It tells the story of Boris, who just came to power as tsar, and how he unrightfully gained his throne.

Pimen, a monk, knows and has recorded the story of Boris’ fault in the death of the rightful heir. Grigory, a young monk working with Pimen, sets out to bring justice. He impersonates the dead tsarevich, or heir to the throne, Dimitri and works to gain power. During the political turmoil that Grigory’s actions cause, Boris is racked with fear and guilt for what he has done. After a council of boyars, or aristocrats, declare that Grigory “The Pretender” should be executed, Boris enters, crying “Begone, child!” because he believes he is seeing Dimitri’s ghost. Pimen enters the room to tell the true story of Dimitri’s death. Blown with the revelation, Boris brings his son to him for his last words and dies.

The plot sounds simple enough, but it is a complicated one for the stage. The opera has a lot of extended libretto focused more on discussing feelings while briefly mentioning previous actions. Scenes were long and it was easy to get lost. At intermission, multiple audience members argued over which character was who and what exactly was going on.

UFOMT used supertitles, providing an English translation. English or not, it’s good to know terms such as tsar, tsarevich, and boyar, for example. Without the supertitles, I’m afraid I would have been entirely confused. As I watched, I kept wishing I had a “Boris Godunov for Dummies” on hand.

Glancing over the plot summary provided in my program, I was afraid this story would be similar to Shakespeare’s little-performed histories. This story fell more along the lines of “Macbeth.” “Boris Godunov” was an intense, thrilling drama with the kind of beautiful music that brings audiences to the edges of their seats and has them watching in thick silence.

The cast of more than 75 created incredible volume. UFOMT collaborated with Craig Jessop’s American Festival Chorus for the production. It took creative staging and movement considering how many people needed to get on and off stage. They succeeded at mostly smooth transitions, but the set-up of the crowds on stage sometimes felt lopsided and a few actors seemed unsure of where to be.

The chorus sang with force and was believable in expressions of desperation and celebration. However, when it split into what sounded like a dozen dissonant parts, it could have been tighter, and high notes could have reached higher. Aside from that, I was in awe at how put-together the performance was for its size.

Russian music, Mussorgsky’s works being no exception, is known for its haunting movement and resonating sounds. Under the direction of Karen Keltner, the orchestra performed the score majestically with the proper rubato to bring it to life.

The music is also marked by the deepest of deep bass parts, and UFOMT’s performance was an evening of bass all-stars. Craig Hart bore the weight of the heavy role of Boris well. His commanding presence on stage captivated the audience. Kristopher Irmiter, who some may recognize as the Commadore in UFOMT’s “Don Giovanni,” played the wearied and wise Pimen with a solemn and beautiful bass voice. Gabriel Manro, Kevin Nakatani, Branch Fields, and Matthew Velis also demonstrated bass and baritone prowess.

Jordan Bluth, as Prince Shuisky, added a wonderfully smooth tenor performance that seemed stronger than his Ottavio in “Don Giovanni.” It’s as if he were feeding off the power of the entire performance – and the audience was eating it up.

The performance was a visual treat with an innovative use of shadow and lighting, along with colorful, authentic-looking costumes. Having sung in Russian, I understand the language is not easy to work with. UFOMT brought in extra coaching and directing power to pull it off, and it showed. The rolls and guttural sounds seemed accurate enough to make me feel as if I were watching a Russian performance put on by Russians.

When the curtain fell at a cliffhanger ending, a hush moved over the wowed audience. “Boris Godunov” may require homework, contemplation and patience, but it is worth it.

Email: hbowler@desnews.com

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