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Colorful The Tsar's Bride Continues Russian Tradition at San Francisco Opera

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
09/11/2000 -  11, 14, 16, 20, 24, 26 and 29 September, 2000
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: The Tsar's Bride
Dimitri Hvorostovsky (Gryaznoy), Olga Borodina (Lyubasha), Anna Netrebko (Marfa), Vladimir Ognovenko (Malyuta-Skuratov), Nikolai Gassiev (Bomelius), Jay Hunter Morris (Lykov), Kevin J. Langan (Sobakin), Katia Escalera (Petrovna), Elena Bocharova (Dunyasha), Irina Bogacheva (Saburova), John Ames (Ivan the Terrible), Virginia Pluth (A maidservant), Valery Portnov (The royal oven-stoker)
San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Neeme Jarvi (conductor)
Lotfi Mansouri (Stage director)

This season is Lotfi Mansouri's last as the general director of the San Francisco Opera. And in many ways, the season is representative of both his strengths and weaknesses as the leader of one of the world's leading opera house.
But high on the credit side of his tenure, will certainly be the association with the Kirov Opera in St. Petersburg he initiated and which has brought to the War Memorial Opera House many memorable productions of rarely performed (at least in the West) Russian Operas. This season adds one more pearl to the string, Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride.
Mansouri himself directed the piece and his gift for pageantry and stage movement gave life to an opera that, for all its melodic appeal, is short on dramatic cohesion and theatrical verve. As usual, the principals appeared to have been given a loose framework on which to drape their performances, but in this case that was the right choice.
In three of the principal roles, Mansouri assembled three world-class artists, all closely associated with the Kirov Opera, Anna Netrebko, Olga Borodina and Dimitri Hvorovstovsky.
The Siberian baritone, who once appeared in People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People issue, has a warm, lyric baritone, evenly produced and cleanly focused. It is not a particularly large instrument, but it projects easily over the orchestra and would probably sound larger but for his tendency to constrict the sound, particularly in the upper register. Not yet a serious vocal problem, this tightness could spell trouble for a singer who used to have a larger, more robust sound. As Gryaznoy, Hvorovstovsky displayed his musicality and dramatic instincts with confidence and a keen sense of the man's conflict as he finds himself wishing to be freed of one woman, Lyubasha, to woo another, Marfa, his friend's intended bride.
Netrebko's singing, on the other hand, exhibited a continued refinement of her technique with the upper register more firmly integrated with the rest of the voice and soaring, full top that effortlessly fills the large opera house. As the ill-fated Marfa, Netrebko's dramatic gifts were also given room to stretch from her opening scene as a young woman in full flush of first love, to the final mad scene illuminated with pathos and sorrow.
Borodina is another artist who continually delights and surprises with her range of talents on stage. After first appearing with the company as the lead in charming but low-key La Cenerentola, she knocked 'em flat with a stunning Carmen when the company was forced out of the opera house and performed at Civic Auditorium for a season.
Now as Lyubasha, Borodina's smoldering presence and voluptuous mezzo commanded the stage as few artists can. In her opening song, a melancholy unaccompanied song about lost love, Borodina mesmerized the audience with her smooth legato, a myriad of vocal colors and a shapely, elegant way with dynamics. Later, her impassioned confrontation with Gryaznoy at the end of the act revealed further riches in this singer's prodigious talent bank.
As Lykov, Marfa's suitor, tenor Jay Hunter Morris was clearly out of his league on the same stage as the other principals. His light tenor sounded hard pressed, turning harsh much of the time and inaudible in the lower register. As the ardent love, he captured the character's youthful vigor capably enough, but that was not translated to convincing vocal terms.
Other singers from the Kirov opera included Vladimir Ognovenko as Marfa's father, Malyuta-Skuratov and Nikolai Gasiev as the apothecary, Bomelius. Kevin J. Langan
One of the other aspects of the collaboration with the Kirov Opera originally had been the presence of maestro Valery Gergiev in the pit. Now committed to more time at the Metropolitan Opera as well as the Los Angeles Opera and the Kirov, Gergiev was not a part of this production.
Instead, esteemed Finnish conductor Neemi Jarvi made his debut with the company. When working with the soloists and small ensembles, Jarvi was masterful at shaping the music and bringing it to life. But in the larger crowd scenes, the coordination between the stage and pit sounded precarious, never quite falling apart, but not executed with the kind of precision and confidence of which the chorus and orchestra are capable.
And not enough can be said in praise of the San Francisco Opera Chorus who once again proved themselves to be a world class ensemble with a rich, blended sound, sensitive musicianship and complete dedication to the quality of their work that is one of the company's most valuable assets.
As with most of the other productions in the series, The Tsar's Bride is decidedly conventional in production values, but nonetheless striking with designer Zack Brown's representational sets and lavish, richly detailed costumes. Thomas J. Munn adds to the effect with his atmospheric, dramatic lighting.
On the strength of productions like this one of The Tsar's Bride, Lotfi Mansouri can retire knowing that he has truly made a valuable difference as director of the San Francisco Opera and the company can be proud of his tenure on many counts.

Kelly Snyder



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