SAMUEL RAMEY IS BORIS GODUNOV – Now at San Francisco Opera through November 15th

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

Bass Baritone Samuel Ramey celebrates his 30th Anniversary with San Francisco Opera in the title role of the current production of BORIS GODUNOV. It is his first performance of the role with the Company, his 1978 debut being “Colline” in LA BOHÈME. In the 1994 recording of BORIS GODUNOV conducted by Claudio Abbado – the “Shostakovich version” – Mr. Ramey sings the role of “Pimen”, the old monk who has chronicled the story of the ill-fated Tsar’s rise to the throne. SF Opera has previously utilized this version of the score – in 1966 for Chester Ludgin and again in 1992 for James Morris. The production now up is described as the “initial version”, a series of seven scenes based on portions of the drama by Aleksandr Pushkin.

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SAMUEL RAMEY, Bass-Baritone — as Boris Godunov. (Photos: Christian Steiner, Terrence McCarthy)

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When composer Modest Mussorgsky first submitted his rather unconventional opera to the Imperial Board it was rejected out of hand, more than likely because the score lacked a strong soprano role and, hence, an absence of romantic arias and scenes for any among a bevy of tenors waiting in the imperial wings. For the next three years the composer re-vamped his efforts by adding additional scenes, producing more characters and beefing-up others – some with arias that would become “traditional cuts”. The newly-revised composition, now referred to as the “definitive” version, was accepted but put on hold until 1874 when it finally premiered at the Marinsky Theatre. The production received accolades from his friends, rotten-tomato-critiques from the local journals, and even a scathing editorial from composer Peter Tchaikovsky describing the opera as “insipid”. One hundred thirty four years later, as a beloved Russian classic and a staple of standard repertoire, the role of “Boris Godunov” sits outside the parameters of its various editions and Mr. Samuel Ramey joins the roster of stellar interpreters.

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The Coronation of Boris Godunov. Photo, Terrence McCarthy

At 66, Samuel Ramey is a formidable presence and his clear and vibrant voice a power to behold. He is in great physical condition, the range of his distinctive and robust bass-baritone is primed and ready to go, his sharp acting chops set to convey a sweeping arc of emotions. The second scene of the Prologue includes the Tsar’s coronation scene, magnificently rendered by conductor Vassily Sinaisky and the SF Opera Chorus. Amidst the imposing icons of the cathedral, Mr. Ramey entered center stage flanked by the young Tsarevich, “Feodor” (Jack Gorlin) and the unhappy daughter “Xenia” (Ji Young Yang). Placing the crown on his head, Boris sings his prayer before the people, “Skorvit dusha!” – “My soul is sad. Some sort of involuntary fear has gripped my heart with a sense of evil foreboding.” This first aria ascends to High F, the highest note of the entire role. Mr. Ramey simply opened up and from his Herculean chest let fly a warm and solid, perfectly-placed climactic tone that quickly established his Alpha presence among the excellent cast.

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JOHN UHLENHOPP (Prince Shuisky) – NICOLAI JANITZKY (Shchelkalov). Photos, Terrence McCarthy

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JI YOUNG YANG (Xenia), JACK GORLIN (Feodor), KENNETH KELLOG (Nikitich). Photos, Terrence McCarthy

Tenor John Uhlenhopp makes his SF Opera debut as the cunning advisor “Prince Shuisky”. Mr. Uhlenhopp includes in his credits the title roles in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, and Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. Beginning in March 2009 he will sing the role of “Tristan” for the re-opening of the opera house in WUPPERTAL. Baritone Nicolai Janitzky debuts this season as “Shchelkalov”, Secretary of the Duma. Mr. Janitzky has studied at the Yale University Opera Program and the Music Academy of the West. He will appear as “Guglielmo” in Mozart’s Così fan tutte with OPERA IDAHO.

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VITALIJ KOWALJOW (Pimen), VSEVOLOD GRIVNOV (Grigory), VALERY PORTNOV (Mityukha). Photos, Terrence McCarthy

Bass Vitalij Kowaljow as “Pimen” made his San Francisco Opera debut as “Sparafucile” in the 2001 production of Rigoletto. Mr. Kowaljow can be heard with Rolando Villazón and Anna Netrebko as “Colline” in La Bohème on CD and DVD and on the upcoming release of Leoncavallo’s I Medici with Plácido Domingo, both from Deutsche Grammophon. Tenor Vsevolod Grivnov, as “Grigory”, returns to SF Opera in a role he has performed at Rhine Opera, Madrid’s Teatro Real, Houston Grand Opera, Bologna’s Teatro Communale and the THÉÂTRE ROYAL DE LA MONNAIE in Brussels. Bass-baritone Valery Portnov takes on the role of the peasant “Mityukha”. Earlier this season he created the role of “Marty Kamen” in THE BONESETTER’S DAUGHTER.

An impressive performance was made by young tenor Andrew Bidlack as the village idiot. A first-year Adler Fellow, Mr. Bidlack’s appearances with San Francisco Opera have included the roles of “Odoardo” in ARIODANTE, “Arturo” in LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, and “Graf Albert” in DIE TOTE STADT. A testament to the efficacy of both the Merola Opera Program and the Adler Fellows, Andrew Bidlack has clearly found his niche as a marvelous singing actor.

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ANDREW BIDLACK (as the simpleton). Photo, Terrence McCarthy

To purchase tickets on-line:
Wednesday, October 22nd, 7:30 pm
Thursday, October 30th, 7:30 pm
Sunday, November 2nd, 2:00 pm
Tuesday, November 4th, 8:00 pm
Friday, November 7th, 8:00 pm
Wednesday, November 12th, 7:30 pm
Saturday, November 15th, 8:00 pm

Add these excellent recordings to your Opera Library. Click on the title to order on-line:

CD – HANDEL: SEMELE. This Grammy Award winner of 1994 features Samuel Ramey in the dual roles of “Cadmus”, King of Thebes and “Somnus”, the god of sleep. John Nelson conducts the English Chamber Orchestra and Ambrosian Opera Chorus.
CD – FLOYD: SUSANNAH. Samuel Ramey is featured as “Olin Blitch”, an itinerant preacher, in this complete recording which to the Grammy Award in 1995. The cast also includes soprano Cheryl Studer and the late tenor Jerry Hadley. Kent Nagano leads the Lyon Opera Orchestra and Chorus.
CD – MOZART: LE NOZZE DI FIGARO. This 1984 Grammy Award winning recording features Samuel Ramey as Figaro, Kiri Te Kanawa as the Countess, Frederica von Stade as Cherubino, Lucia Popp as Susanna, and Thomas Allen as the Count. Sir George Solti conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra and London Opera Chorus. Click here to listen to samples: MP3s, The Marriage of Figaro.
CD – BRAVISSIMO! Best of Bel Canto. A collection of classical arias by various artists, Samuel Ramey is featured in “Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni” from Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Donato Renzetti conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra and Ambrosian Opera Chorus.

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See Related: FINE ARTS CRITIC SEAN MARTINFIELD

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Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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