One of the more popular debates in opera circles is that of music vs. theater, and I have always been unwilling to give up the latter for the former. Sadly, this is not a problem for the Russian composers, and my first-ever viewing of Boris Godunov was no exception.
Mussorgsky's score is majestic and innovative, but he manages to take a terribly exciting plot (culled from the historical tragedy by Pushkin) and turn it into mush, pushing all the action offstage while those onstage spend their time philosophizing and psychologizing. In short, the title character is involved in a plot to murder the heir to the Tsar's throne, Tsarevitch Dimitri. Dimitri's death eventually opens the way for Godunov to become Tsar, but rumors circulate that perhaps young Dimitri was not actually killed. A monk, Grigory, approximately the same age that Dimitri would be, escapes to Poland and pretends to be the Tsarevitch, raising an army for an attack on Godunov. You've got to go a pretty long way to make this kind of a plot boring, but Mussorgsky, acting as his own librettist, does the job only too well.
The highlight of the opera is Grigory, especially as sung by the forceful tenor Vsevolod Grivnov. He is aided by the comic relief of his traveling companions, two vagabond monks played by Matthew O'Neill and Vladimir Ognovenko, and by some exciting pistol-play at an inn near the Lithuanian border.
Then, halfway through, Grigory disappears, leaving it up to our Boris, the legendary bass-baritone Samuel Ramey, to fill in the details, notably in a long soliloquy at the beginning of the second act. At 66, Ramey admits that he is near the end of his singing career, but proves himself still capable (after a little warm-up) of delivering that lovely dark-lacquer tone, along with enough acting chops to instill his performance with the Hamlet-like torments that occupy the remainder of the opera. He is helped greatly by the town simpleton, played by SFO Adler Fellow Andrew Bidlack, who applies his lovely lyric tenor to the accusatory, haunting Simpleton Song, "Weep, Russian people, starving people." The Tsar's peril is also represented by the forbidding presence of his advisor Prince Shuisky (tenor John Uhlenhopp) and young Jack Gorlin, who gives an impressive performance as the Tsar's son, Fyodor.
Goran Wassberg's set designs are grand and inventive, particularly an enormous wooden ramp full of trap doors that unfurl brilliant, humongous icon banners. Ian Robertson's chorus carries the many hoi polloi scenes with aplomb, and Vassily Sinaisky's orchestra reveals the full range of Mussorgsky's score, particularly in the foreboding voicings of brass
Through Nov. 15, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., $15-$290, http://www.sfopera.com/, 415/864-3330.
Photo: Samuel Ramey as Boris Godunov, John Uhlenhopp as Prince Shuisky. Photo by Terrence McCarthy.