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Intelligent reading

The Washington Opera
02/13/1999 -  and 15, 18, 20, 23, 25, 28, March 3, 1999
Modest Mussorgsky Boris Godunov (1872 version, with St. Basil scene)
Samuel Ramey (Boris Godunov), Victoria Livengood (Marina Mniszek), Patrick Denniston (Grigory/Dimitri), Sergei Alexashkin (Pimen), Wieslaw Ochman (Shuisky), Alan Held (Rangoni), Joyce Castle (Innkeeper), Stephan Szkafarowsky (Varlaam), Francis Egerton (Missail), Deanne Meek (Feodor), Laura Lewis (Xenia), Wendy Hoffman (Nurse), Pierre Lefebvre (Holy Fool), Jason Stearns (Nikitich), Daniel Sumegi (Shchelkalov)
The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and the Washington Opera Chorus, Isaac Karabtchevsky, (conductor)
Nicolas Dvigoubsky (Director)

The Washington Opera is to be commended for its largely successful mounting of this extraordinarily challenging work. The production is elevated by astoundingly good singing by even the briefest soloist, the exceptional performance of the outstanding Washington Opera Chorus, and expert handling of very complex crowd scenes. The production falls short in its rather superficial treatment of the drama and occasionally distracting peculiarities of staging.

The relationship between Boris and Shuisky is particularly unsatisfying. It is neither clearly defined nor purposefully ambiguous. It is merely muddy and lackluster. For there to be less menace in the Terem scene, the Tsar and his advisor would have to launch into a chorus of their alma mater. The relationship between Boris and his son Feodor is disappointingly one dimensional. The relationship is clearly loving, but there are many other levels that are not explored, or at least not sufficiently communicated.

The staging is generally very good. Especially effective is the blocking for the chorus that made use of the entire stage without ever seeming uncontrolled. Less effective is the repeated appearance of a young boy in a cloud of smoke representing the murdered tsarevich Dimitri. The concept itself is not without merit, but the execution of the idea in this case is merely confusing. The most incomprehensible use of this device appears during Pimen's narration when the boy is strangled by a guard in pantomime in the background. Not only does this happen well before Pimen is actually describing the murder, but repeated references in the libretto to the boy's bloody wounds render the choice for strangulation utterly mystifying.

The set—rag draped scaffolding around an unstable central arch, anchored by mysterious looking blocks of compressed pieces of armor and architectural details—is perfect for the Prologue in the courtyard of the Novodevichy Monastery. It deftly underscores the desperate poverty and chaotic precariousness of the lives of the peasants of the chorus. Lighting changes effectively move the scene to the monk Pimen's cell. The addition of a table suggests the transition to an inn on the Lithuanian border. Beyond this, the versatility of this initially compelling set falls far short of the designer’s apparent hopes. The addition of a few details attempt, but fail, to transform this bleak scene into the Kremlin, Marina's palace, St. Basil's Cathedral, and the Kromy Forest. Halfway through the production, the set begins to beg the question "If conditions are thus universally degraded, why are the peasants so indignant?"

The designer, Nicolas Dvigoubsky, is somewhat redeemed by his excellent costumes. The nobility is characterized by glimmering jewel-tones—sumptuous red for the Tsar and the boyars, rich emerald green for the police, blazing gold for Marina, and a shimmering rainbow of satins for her attendants. The Pretender’s progress to the throne is marked by his changes from a simple monk’s robe, to shabby traveling gear, to elegant court dress, and ultimately to gleaming armor under an unmistakable red sash. Varlaam and Missail's disgustingly filthy monks robes proclaim their characters before they sing a note, and the Holy Fool is as horrific as he is pitiable in his contagion stained rags. The designs for the multitudinous chorus are admirably individualized. Les Miserable-esque gray rags are interspersed with sadly faded and ravaged festival costumes that suggest distinctions among specific members without ever distracting from the necessary uniformity of the mob.

The costumes only add depth to this well-conceived and well-executed crowd that is one of the major highlights of this production. The Washington Opera Chorus delivers yet another phenomenal vocal performance in a difficult and undoubtedly unfamiliar language. At the same time, they are collectively able to clearly communicate all the piteousness, cynicism, desperation, cruelty, and ambivalence necessary to make the chorus what the conductor intended, the complex and protean true central character of this opera.

The chorus is not alone in being praiseworthy. Even the smallest solo roles, such as Daniel Sumegi’s Shchelkalov and Jason Stearns’ Nikitich, are exceptionally well sung, and generally well interpreted. Wieslaw Ochman's cutting tenor is perfectly suited to the scheming Shuisky. Deanne Meek is completely enchanting as the brash young Feodor, and Wendy Hoffman as the Nurse and Laura Lewis as Xenia make the most of their limited parts. Stephan Szkafarowsky is brilliantly funny as Varlaam in the inn scene, but at the same time he manages to imply the violent aspect of the wandering monk’s nature that becomes apparent in the Kromy Forest. Francis Egerton is hilarious and engaging as Varlaam's sidekick Missail, and the reliable Joyce Castle provides a spunky and endearing Innkeeper. Alan Held is as revoltingly insinuating as the theme associated with Rangoni indicates he should be. His upper register is perfectly goose-flesh inducing. Pierre Lefebvre has all the requisite pathos for the Holy Fool, but colors his interpretation with peevishness and strength that distinguish him from a mere Simpleton.

The lovers, Marina and Dimitri, are cast in a somewhat lighter vein than usual, perhaps in an attempt to offer contrast to the unrelenting darkness and gravity of the opera as a whole. Patrick Denniston’s matinee idol looks and ample, versatile tenor voice certainly give him the basic qualifications for the false Dimitri. His portrayal is so sympathetic, however, that one begins to wonder what a nice boy like that is doing trying to usurp someone else’s throne. Victoria Livengood’s Marina is more of the preening peacock than the cold-blooded political manipulator, but when the preening is done with such relish, style, and vocal assurance, it is hardly a point of complaint.

Truly outstanding among the exceptional supporting cast is Sergei Alexashkin as the ancient monk/chronicler Pimen. His vocal quality and characterization are reminiscent of an antique Persian carpet. The colors are perhaps a bit faded, the edges perhaps a bit frayed. But the precise balance and blending of each element of the pattern creates a whole of such rarity, beauty, complexity, and attention to detail that it is impossible to imagine that any newer example could be an improvement.

Unfortunately, Pimen’s narration is widely viewed as being long and tedious, as it certainly can be in inexpert hands. This was apparently a concern for the director when he arranged all sorts of unintelligible and superfluous pantomime for the background of the monastery scene. In addition to the aforementioned strangling, menacing looking monks and lots of writhing peasants add to the confusion. Whatever the point of all this was supposed to have been, it is entirely unnecessary, and only serves to distract from the thoroughly riveting performance of Mr. Alexashkin.

The world has effectively run out of superlatives for the voice of Über-bass Samuel Ramey. Pick a descriptor–rich, sonorous, commanding, mesmerizing, magnificent. Not only has it been used ad nauseum already, it will be utterly beggared by comparison to the voice itself. His performance as the tortured Tsar is no exception. It does take some adjustment of the ear accustomed to the typical Slavic-voiced Boris to appreciate what Ramey has to offer. Once the adjustment has been made, the listener is rewarded with a performance of immense regality, and rare magnetism and dignity. If Mr. Ramey continues to refine his interpretation, and is able to inhabit the soul of the character as completely as he has mastered the vocal challenges, he is in an incomparable position to shed unique light on this endlessly fascinating role.

Despite a bad case of anemia in the bells, most noticeably in the Coronation Scene, Isaac Karabtchevsky brings a thoughtful and intelligent reading of the score from the Kennedy Center Orchestra.

Interview with Samuel Ramey

Samuel Ramey, opera's preeminent bass, recently took time from his busy schedule performing Boris Godunov at The Washington Opera to talk with Le Concertographe correspondent MK Blackwood. This exclusive interview provides fascinating insight into the legendary singer's process of creation of what is perhaps the most complex and important role in the basso repertoire. Mr. Ramey also discusses his future plans, his views on American opera, and reveals himself to be as thoughtful and engaging in person as he is on stage.

MKBlackwood : Let's start with the obvious first. Of the versions of Boris that you've done, which version do you prefer?

Samuel Ramey : Well, I've done only the two Mussorgsky versions. The first time I did it, I did the original version, his very first version which is very short, only seven scenes. It doesn't have either of the Polish scenes. And musically, it's more or less, it's almost the same. There are some differences in the big Act 2 scene. And then I've done this version. I don’t know. Musically I think I prefer this version. Dramatically, I prefer the other version because it's much more concentrated just on Boris. You don’t have the…I don't want to say 'distraction' of the Polish scenes but…(laughs) for lack of a better word. So I have sort of mixed feelings about it. I think if I could do a mix of them, if I could take the second act out of this version and put it into the first version, that would be it for me. An ideal version.

MKB: In the 1872 version that you're doing here in Washington, Boris spends a lot of time off stage.

SR: Right, exactly.

MKB: Do you try to maintain the character off stage?

SR: Well, yes. Not really maintain. I don't go off and sit there and brood about the affairs of state or anything like that. (laughs) But I try not to get too…too distracted. I usually spend most of the time in my dressing room looking at the music or whatever.

MKB: But you're not necessarily back there playing poker with the stage hands.

SR: Oh no! No. (laughs)

MKB: What is your overall conception of this role, if you had to pick a defining characteristic for Boris?

SR: Well, I think that he is consumed by guilt over this thing that he...although I mean, in the opera. Historians, they are not really convinced that he had anything to do with the young tsarevitch's murder. That's neither here nor there in the opera. He has had something to do with it. I think that's the key to this character.

MKB: You mention historians. Despite the fact that Pushkin and Mussorgsky have taken a very specific, very definite view of Boris' role in these happenings, do you think it's important to do historical research to get background?

SR: Yes. Whenever I'm doing a historical character, whenever I'm involved in an opera where I'm going to portray somebody who (is a historical figure) I usually do, time permitting. I enjoy going back, doing a bit of historical research into the character.

MKB: That gives you a grounding for the character?

SR: Yes. Not necessarily any dramatic insights or anything. But just to know, just to familiarize yourself with the period--what was going on.

MKB: What do you think the character's most important relationship is in this opera?

SR: Oh, I think in this opera the most important is with his kids, with his family. I have a feeling that in the opera that's what he enjoys most is his relationship with his family. Because he's more or less a different character when he's with them, in the brief moments that he's with them. So I think that that's the key relationship. Although the confrontation with Shuisky, that's also a very important relationship, confrontational relationship that it is.

MKB: That's more important dramatically?

SR: Yes, exactly.

MKB: How do you see Boris' relationship with, especially with the son?

SR: Well, I think that obviously he loves his son very much and, I think from what he says in the brief moment before his aria, he longs for the day when his son is Tsar when he will be able to hand over the symbols of power to him. I think that's very important to him, aside from the familial love, of course.

MKB: So you think maybe he's looking at him as a tool to get out of being Tsar?

SR: Oh yeah, maybe a little bit.

MKB: How do you think Boris regards the people of Russia? There are specific references in the libretto, but frequently he reacts very differently than he speaks about them.

SR: Well, yes, he talks in his monologue about he's been ruling for six years, but still…I've talked with a few Russians in the chorus who have not been in this country long and they say it's amazing…I was talking to one lady and she says that it's amazing that it hasn't changed. She gets a very emotional feeling when she's doing this opera because she says when she was in the country (Russia) five years ago it was the same with people…wanting bread and things like that. Little has changed in five hundred years. But as far as Boris, he speaks about the people, that he has not been able to solve the problems, the famine and all this, so I think that he is concerned, but…

MKB: In the Coronation Scene, after Boris' monologue, as you're turning to leave, two children from the chorus come out and approach you. At the dress rehearsal I was close enough to be able to see your face very clearly, and the look seemed to me to be almost frightened. Do you think that there's an element of fear of the mob in Boris?

SR: I don't think it's as much fright as horror because the things he says at the end of the monologue "We'll have a big feast, we'll do this, we'll have a celebration" then he finishes and these two peasants come out and obviously they have nothing, they're hungry and I think it's more…not fear…I mean it might be some fear, fear of the beginnings of a revolution or revolt. But I think it's more just horror at what's going on.

MKB: And maybe frustration at his inability to address that in any substantive way?

SR: Yes, right.

MKB: How long did it take you to initially prepare for this role when it was first given to you?

SR: When I first did it, it was a nightmare because I had first of all very little, I'd had practically no experience with the language. I'd only done a concert version of the role of Pimen, and I had done a song cycle in Russian some years ago. But this was the first thing that I was preparing actually for the stage. So it was a nightmare just learning it, memorizing it. It took me a couple of months of real solid work.

MKB: And this is longer than usual?

SR: Yes, simply because the language was so foreign to me. But then when I came back --I did it, then a year went by, and I did it again--it came very, very much easier. And it comes much easier all the time now. I'm not conversational, I don't speak Russian at all. But at least I'm familiar with words, I know words and their meanings, and now it comes much easier.

MKB: You were working with a Russian language instructor? Were you trying to learn the language?

SR: Well I wasn't studying… Ideally you could take the time and you'd actually study the language but I just didn't have the time to do that with my schedule. So I was just working with various Russian coaches just with the text primarily, and then later the music.

MKB: In your preparation, in addition to the musical preparation, the language preparation, and your historical research, did you listen to any other singers who have done the role? Did you go back and read the Pushkin that the libretto is based on?

SR: No, no I didn't read the Pushkin. I thought I should do that…

MKB: He says apologetically.

SR:He says apologetically. (laughs) Most of my work was just looking at the text and working with a language coach and with the music.

MKB: So you haven't gone back and listened to any…

SR: No, no, I did listen to some of the great singers. I had a recording of Feodor Chaliapin doing some of the scenes from it. I'm not a big fan of Chaliapin. I think he's somebody you appreciate more if were to… I actually shouldn't say that because I have a film of his, of Don Quichotte which is wonderful, fantastic. But, yes, I listened to a number of singers who have done the part.

MKB: Was any of that influential?

SR: No. That's why I try not to…I never listen too much. I like to listen a little bit to other singers, but I'm afraid that I would start trying to copy or something like that.

MKB: So it's more just for background color?

SR: Yes, exactly. Right.

MKB: Aside form the language difficulties, what particular vocal challenges do you find this role presents? That are different from your…Rossini, for instance.

SR: It's funny, I had been offered the role of Boris on a number of occasions before I did it for the first time, and had turned it down several times. My teacher and I had always talked about the part. It seems to be a role that all basses say "Oh, I want some day to do Boris". And my teacher and I were talking and he said, "You know, I've heard a lot of singers over the years do Boris, and after they do it for a while, vocally they don't seem to be the same. It seems to take a toll." And that's one reason I'd put it off. I'd made up my mind that I wouldn't to do it until I was fifty. But when you look at the part, it's a relatively short part. It's only 20 to 25 minutes of singing. Other roles that I do are much longer. It's just that…dramatically it's very demanding. I mean vocal dramatics. That big scene in the second act I think is very, very difficult. And you have to be careful what you do with your voice in that scene.

MKB: You seem to be a particularly singing Boris. You don't go for the speech-singing, or actual declamation.

SR: No, no. Not too much.

MKB: Is that for vocal reasons, or is that a dramatic choice?

SR: It's just the way I decided I wanted to do the part form the beginning. I wanted to sing it as much as possible. And I think that's where the role can become dangerous, is to use too much declamation.

MKB: Dangerous to your voice?

SR: Yes, getting out of control vocally, it can take a toll I think.

MKB: The role presents enormous dramatic challenges the entire time you're on stage. How do you prepare for that, what do you do to get yourself into that state?

SR: Well, nothing really. Whenever I'm off stage I'm thinking about the next scene, trying to concentrate on what that scene involves.

MKB: Do you take any sort of acting classes?

SR: No, I've never studied acting as such. I mean I've studied acting in that over the years I've worked with a lot of wonderful directors and I think that that is a process of study. But as far as formal acting classes, I've never done that.

MKB: Not had the interest, not had the time?

SR: More not had the time really. It's not a lack of interest on my part. And I've been saying this for years that sometime I would like to do that. It's just I'd have to create the time.

MKB: Any chance your schedule is going to free up and allow you the time?

SR: Oh, it might, it might. (laughs)

MKB: I've seen this production a few times, and I notice that you seem to do things slightly differently each time. Is that because you have a central concept of the character that allows you to react independently in each performance, or because you are constantly thinking about it and refining what you're doing?

SR: I think a combination of both. I enjoy being somewhat spontaneous on stage. I don't enjoy just going out and doing the same thing performance after performance. And I think that some things…lots of times it's not something that you think about or you plan. These things sometimes just happen on stage, you react differently to dramatic situations.

MKB: And this depends on who you're on stage with, I presume, how you react at the time?

SR: Yes, right.

MKB: Are there certain types of singers that you find that you react with better on stage than others? Singers who do certain things, or react in certain ways?

SR: No, I don't think it has anything to do with particular singers, it's just the spur of the moment type of thing.

MKB: Some people seem to find the typical Slavic voice in some way unpleasant. Are you getting any feedback that would indicate that your singing of this role is drawing people to this opera who might not otherwise be attracted to it?

SR: Hmmm… Gosh, that's a very good question. I have no idea.

MKB: Is that an interest or concern of yours? That maybe you can expand…

SR: Well, it would be nice to think that I, that anybody, can do something like that.

MKB: Would you agree that doing Boris is, I don't know if you'd want to call it an expansion or a development, but in some way a change in your typical repertoire?

SR: Oh yeah, for sure! It's really the only Russian opera that I do, or have done to this point. Yes, I think it's quite a different thing from most of my repertoire.

MKB: You've said that you decided that you wouldn't touch this until you were fifty, but the Russian operatic repertoire is so full of excellent roles for your voice. Why just now are you moving into Russian repertoire? And are you moving into Russian repertoire?

SR: (laughs) I don’t really know. This is, like I said, the only Russian opera that I've done. I did some concert performances of Pimen, and I recorded Pimen a few years back. There will be a production at the Met in a couple or three years time of a new production of War and Peace, Prokofiev, which I'll be involved in. That will be my next Russian piece. But I wouldn't say I was moving into Russian repertoire, because that's really the only plan. I know there are some wonderful pieces for the bass voice. It seems to be the Russian calling card--the bass voice.

MKB: I would think that someone in your position, if you wanted to expand the Russian portion of your repertoire, could make a few phone calls and make that happen. Am I mistaken…

SR: No, I, yeah, I could. I've talked with some people on a couple of occasions. I'm sort of associated with these demonic parts, devil parts. And there's an opera by Anton Rubinstein called The Demon.

MKB: That you keep teasing us with.

SR: Well, you know, I actually read through it when I was in San Francisco, the opera in San Francisco a few years ago was sort of expressing an interest in doing it and asked me to look at it. I went through it with a Russian coach out there. It was just, I found it probably at this point just a little on the high side for me. It’s more of a dramatic baritone, bass-baritone type. A Wotan type voice is what it calls for. So I didn't agree to do it at that time. But that's really the only thing that I've been tempted by up to this point.

MKB: On a side note, these roles that would seem very good for you, that you've decided are a little too high for your voice…if they're too high to do on a continual basis in a performance situation, would you ever consider recording them?

SR: That would be probably more of possibility.

MKB: Are you considering recording any of them? The Rubinstein, or Iago, for instance?

SR: Well, I could be tempted if somebody would ask me. I would be very tempted, of course. There was some talk a number of years ago about recording Iago. But it just never came to fruition. But those things would be very, very tempting. Iago is also a part that I would just love to do, it's just that little bit too high for me to do on stage.

MKB: So my spies tell me that you were seen at the Kirov Festival (at the Metropolitan Opera last year) at a performance of Mazeppa, is that true?

SR: Yes, I was.

MKB: Would you consider that role? That would seem to be perfect for you.

SR: Yes. That's a wonderful, wonderful part. Actually, I was supposed to have recorded that a couple of years ago and, there again, it was a part where I accepted to do it and than I just found myself with no time to prepare and had to cancel it. But it's a wonderful part, just fabulous.

MKB: Any prospects that it might happen?

SR: No. Someday perhaps.

MKB: If I can move from my Russian questions into the American repertoire…As an American singer, are you interested in American opera for the sake of American opera? Are you interested in expanding and promoting the tradition of American opera?

SR: Very much so. As a matter of fact, I don't have very much American opera in my repertoire, and it's been something that I've wanted to do. I've been dying for something to come along. To really create something, you know, work with a composer, and really do something. Fortunately, I think this might…there's a project being talked about now that might, that I think is going to happen. It's something that I've been wanting to do for a number of years.

MKB: May I ask you to elaborate on that very interesting, and mysterious, statement?

SR: Well, I won't say, I won't give any specifics. But it's, the project will be based on the novel Elmer Gantry, if you know that.

MKB: Now that is interesting.

SR: It's funny….because I've always said that I'd love to work on a new opera where you could really work with the conductor from the beginning and I've always been asked, "Do you have a subject in mind? Do you have a story in mind?" And I never could…and I remember once I thought (sotto voce) Elmer Gantry! I remember seeing that movie years ago, and it was just fantastic. I always thought Elmer Gantry might be good, might be an interesting piece. Then I totally forgot about it. And then, lo and behold, it just recently in the last few weeks has come up as a possible project.

MKB: Any timeline on this Gantry project?

SR: Well, it's being talked about for three years or four years time.

MKB: In association with a particular company yet?

SR: Well, yeah, but I can't…I mean it's just too much in to formative stages right now that I really couldn't…

MKB: Aren't you worried about getting stuck in the naughty preacher role?

SR: (laughs) Yeah, exactly! Right!

MKB: I'm afraid that Olin Blitch is the only American aspect of your repertoire that I'm aware of, unless you want to count Rake's Progress.

SR: Well, that's really the only pure American one. That's the only American opera that I do.

MKB: Let's talk about that for a minute. Do you enjoy singing in English? Is it easier to sing in your native language?

SR: I wouldn't say it's easier to sing. English is a very difficult language to sing in and make yourself understood. But I've personally always found it easy to sing. Most people say that I have very good diction and they can understand me. So I've always been for that reason a fan, shall we say, of American opera. You know we do all these wonderful operas from the 18th, 19th century, and it's nice to do something in your own language. Your own roots.

MKB: Do you find cultural affinity with Susannah?

SR: Oh yeah. You know, I grew up listening to…I remember on a couple of occasions when I was growing up the church that my parents and I went to (in Colby, Kansas) had that type of hellfire and brimstone type preacher. So I have definite frames of reference back to childhood.

MKB: Any specific childhood memories influencing you performance?

SR: Oh now, no! Nothing like that.

MKB: No good juicy stories?

SR: (laughs) Sorry! Sorry to disappoint.

As if it were possible for this great artist and delightful man to do any such thing!

Samuel Ramey will appear in Susannah at The Metropolitan Opera March 31, April 3, 6, 9, 13, 16, and 22, 1999

Washington, 25/2/99

MK Blackwood



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