sat 25/05/2024

Khovanshchina/Eugene Onegin, Welsh National Opera review - Russian revivals strong and weak | reviews, news & interviews

Khovanshchina/Eugene Onegin, Welsh National Opera review - Russian revivals strong and weak

Khovanshchina/Eugene Onegin, Welsh National Opera review - Russian revivals strong and weak

Mussorgsky torso again comes into focus as a work of genius, unlike Tchaikovsky's classic

The Old Believers going up in smoke to Stravinsky's final chorusClive Barda

About Khovanshchina I once had serious doubts. Leaving aside its unfinished condition, it always struck me as what Wagnerians would call a bleeding chunk of history, unstructured, confused, over-researched and dramaturgically obscure.

Three recent performances in Shostakovich’s powerful performing edition of Mussorgsky's incomplete original have completely changed my mind: Graham Vick’s incomparable “promenade” production in the People’s Tent at Edgbaston three years ago, Semyon Bychkov’s Proms performance this summer, and now this revival of David Pountney’s at that time still problematic 2007 staging by Welsh National Opera

Nothing will ever knock the rough edges off Mussorgsky’s score, conceived in the shadow of the censors’ rejection of Boris Godunov and composed in a state of gradually advancing alcoholism. The piece is quite simply a triumph of operatic genius and musical originality over the normal Aristotelian requirements of well-made, coherent and properly motivated theatre.

In Pountney’s production, this rambling account of the factional in-fighting at the time of Peter the Great’s accession in late 17th century Moscow is not exactly clarified for the humble opera-goer. It relocates the action to just post-Revolutionary Russia, with red-uniformed streltsy (Ivan the Terrible’s original guards regiment, now under the private command of the ruffianly Prince Ivan Khovansky), Peter’s poteshny guards as shiny-raincoated Cheka officers, and a single basic constructivist set (a marvellous if somewhat cluttered design by the late, much-lamented Johan Engels) that might grace any exhibition of early Soviet art. It even adds one or two minor obscurities of its own. But the sheer musical power of the performance under Tomáš Hanus, in combination with Pountney’s superb, musicianly stagecraft, reduces these problems to something close to insignificance.Robert Hayward as Ivan KhovanskyAnyone who knows Boris Godunov knows about Mussorgsky’s intuitive feel for the theatre: his unequalled brilliance in the characterisation of crowds and individuals, the almost cinematic vividness and precision of his musical stage management. Khovanshchina is no less thrilling in these respects, and it would be hard to imagine a better unit for their display than the WNO chorus. Every time they rush, march, drift or leak on to the stage, as guards, Old Believers, migrant workers, or what-have-you, a shiver runs down the spine. 

The impact of their singing and acting is, in my experience, pretty well unrivalled; and it should be noted that not only are they singing this big choral opera in Russian, but it is one of three major works they have had in more or less simultaneous rehearsal with big choral or chorus-solo parts: Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin also in Russian (see below), and Janáček’s From the House of the Dead (in English, opening next Sunday). The Land of Song is a good old Welsh cliché; but in the Welsh opera chorus it long ago became reality, and it has stayed that way.

Sara Fulgoni as Marfa in WNO KhovanshchinaBut this Khovanshchina is strongly cast also in the solo parts, without obvious exception. The long first act is essentially a wide-screen epic affair (though with important solos, notably Adrian Thompson’s shifty, cowardly yet oddly likeable Scribe, very stylishly sung). But the second act is pure individual confrontation, a terrific operatic row between three of Mussorgsky’s main characters: the devious, modernising Prince Golitsyn (Mark Le Brocq), Khovansky himself (Robert Hayward, pictured above), and the prince-turned-Old-Believer Dosifei (Miklós Sebestyén). It would be good to have space for a detailed discussion of this riveting scene, done here with only minimal cuts, and an epitome of Mussorgsky’s technique of individual psychological portraiture; but alas I have to limit myself to praising the sustained intensity of the performance of these three singers, here and (apart from Golitsyn, who never reappears) elsewhere. 

No less impressive is Simon Bailey’s sinister, manipulative Shaklovity, the one survivor among the boyars, and a curious, sightly twisted patriot into whose mouth the composer puts a lament for the Russian people no less heartfelt, if rougher, than the Simpleton’s in Boris. Sara Fulgoni provides a clever, well sung, perhaps slightly over-drawn portrait of the ambiguous Marfa (pictured above), a woman still confused between a strong sexuality and a heavy piety in thrall to the domineering Dosifei, who leads them all on to the funeral pyre (to Stravinsky’s concluding chorus) at the end. And there is a series of fine supporting vignettes: from Monika Sawa as the fanatical Susannah, Adrian Dwyer as the viciously libidinous Andrei Khovansky, and Claire Wild as his main target, the Lutheran girl Emma.Scene from WNO Eugene OneginI wish I could be as enthusiastic about the Onegin, revived here in James Macdonald’s somewhat workaday 2004 production, and conducted with a disconcerting lack of refinement or attention to the stage by the Latvian Ainārs Rubiķis. It was disheartening to come away from this lovely opera with so little to remember of Tchaikovsky’s genius apart from some good solo singing, especially by Natalya Romaniw as Tatyana, Nicholas Lester as an interesting if not quite authoritative Onegin (the two pictured above), Jason Bridges as a fluent, personable Lensky, and Sebestyén (the Khovanshchina Dosifei) excellent here too as Gremin. Even the company’s wonderful orchestra and chorus were reduced, amazingly, to plodding routine.

Macdonald’s staging (designer Tobias Hoheisel) curiously locates the first scene (set in the Larin garden) half inside what feels like a high barn, defined by an arch that stays with us, in one form or another, throughout the evening. Stolid design matches stolid production: chorus dancing worthy of Sadlers Wells vintage 1960, stage movement largely off the peg. Perhaps the revival of this repertory opera fell victim to the rehearsal demands of two less familiar, more complex works. But a fullish house deserved better. They should have been at Khovanshchina, but mostly, alas, weren’t.

A triumph of operatic genius and musical originality over the normal requirements of well-made, coherent, properly motivated theatre


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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