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San Francisco Symphony brings grand opera to the concert stage with "Boris Godunov"

June 5, 2018


Preliminary rendering of Boris Godunov's scenic design (credit: Mac Mock Design)

When staged by a traditional opera company, Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” requires a long gestation period – typically a solid year to brainstorm and design the production, followed by a month or more for rehearsals and dialing in the fine points. That’s what is needed to prepare “Boris” – a Shakespearean tale of political power and corruption – for public consumption.

But when Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony present their semi-staged production of “Boris Godunov” this month (June 14-15, 17), the timetable will accelerate, dramatically: “The cast arrives June 6 and the final dress rehearsal is on the 12th,” says stage director James Darrah, laughing. “Well, that’s not a normal opera production.”

And that’s the point.

This is the sixth semi-staged production Darrah has worked on with Tilson Thomas at Davies Symphony Hall over the past five years, and each has been unique – putting a symphonic stamp not only on operas, but on a Broadway show by Leonard Bernstein, a cantata by Mahler, even Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis.” With each production, the goal is to “activate the narrative,” he says, zooming in to “illuminate key moments” of the plotline and score with lighting, costumes and technology – and all the while drawing on the spectacle of the orchestra onstage.


Michael Tilson Thomas and James Darrah (Photos: Spencer Lowell, Simona Kessler)

“The main character in all these productions is the San Francisco Symphony,” Darrah says. “Very quickly, that’s something Michael and I got on the same page about. Don’t turn off the lights and try to hide them and pretend you’re staging this in a proscenium opera house. The idea is to wrap the action around the musicians and utilize them as a force, so all these people in the symphony are giving birth to musical moments that illuminate the drama.”

When the San Francisco Symphony staged Bernstein’s On the Town in 2016, members of the cast—including those who had performed the show on Broadway—were “blown away by the sheer size of the orchestral forces. At the first rehearsal, a lot of the cast had their mouths open because they realized the size of the orchestra was three times what they’d ever experienced. The choreographer was like, `I’ve never heard the score like this.’ They were almost giddy.”


San Francisco Symphony's production of Peter Grimes, led by Michael Tilson Thomas and directed by James Darrah (Photo: Stefan Cohen)

Something is happening in the world of symphony orchestras: the emergence of a new wave of multi-media productions. For 15 years the San Francisco Symphony has been ahead of the curve, presenting works by Claude Debussy, Béla Bartók, Benjamin Britten, George Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, John Adams and others. Season after season, Tilson Thomas and his team mix music, theater and visual projections; the result has been to set this orchestra at the cutting edge of technology in the concert hall.

Tilson Thomas chooses the repertory.

A man of the theater, whose grandparents helped pioneer Yiddish theater in New York, Tilson Thomas “has inherently creative ideas,” Darrah says. “He chooses what interests him dramatically” and then the collaboration starts. Over the years, a design team has emerged. Several key shapers of “Boris Godunov” – including video projection designer Adam Larsen and scenic and costume designers Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock – have worked together on other San Francisco Symphony productions.

Inspired by Pushkin’s tragedy, “Boris Godunov” chronicles the arrogance and downfall of the 16th-century tsar, a role to be sung in San Francisco by Russian bass Stanislav Trofimov.

Traditionally, this is an epic and lavish production.

But Darrah doesn’t expect to fixate on the minutiae of staging or the movement of massive sets. Rather, his mission will be to keep pushing the narrative forward, telegraphing key moments so “the whole piece unfurls in flashes. There will be images or specific setups on stage – almost like snapshots that burn into your mind, that encapsulate what the scene is about. There’s a physical life to these images, which track and evolve as the narrative continues and as the orchestra delivers the score with power and focus.”

With Tilson Thomas and the rest of the team, he says, he will “treat this opera in a way that only a symphony can.”

—Richard Scheinin

When you go:

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.” 8 p.m. June 14-15, 2 p.m. June 17. Davies Symphony Hall, (415) 864-6000, sfsymphony.org