Powerful and Thought-Provoking Khovanschina from the Welsh National Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mussorgsky, Khovanschina: Soloists, and Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Tomáš Hanus, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff. 23.9.2017. (GPu)

WNO’s Khovanschina (c) Clive Barda

Cast included:

Prince Ivan Khovansky – Robert Hayward
Prince Andrei Khovansky – Adrian Dwyer
Prince Vasily Golitsyn – Mark Le Brocq
Shaklovity – Simon Bailey
Dosifei – Miklós Sebestyén
Marfa – Sara Fulgoni
Susanna – Monika Sawa
Scribe – Adrian Thompson
Emma – Claire Wild
Varsonofev – Alastair Moore
Kuz’ka – Simon Crosby Buttle
Streshnev – Gareth Dafydd Morris


Director – David Pountney
Designer – Johan Engels
Costume Designer – Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting Designer – Fabrice Kebour
Choreographer – Beate Vollack
Chorus Master – Stephen Harris

Khovanschina must be amongst the most inchoate of all the operas which have anything like a regular place in the repertoire. As a dramatic ‘structure’ it is essentially invertebrate, almost wholly lacking in tightness or clarity of design. As a narrative experience it is disturbingly episodic; for an audience not very familiar with the Russian history of the period in which the opera is set (i.e. the 1680s) it must always have been difficult to work out how certain scenes are related to what has gone before (or, indeed, to what follows!). Too many characters are left undeveloped, in part because more than a few of them are representative figures (mostly of political ideas or stances) rather than individuals in any real sense. Mussorgsky prepared the libretto himself, apparently basing it on a good many historical sources; he set his text as he wrote it, rather than leaving composition until he had completed the libretto. Given such circumstances, and considering Mussorgsky’s advanced dependence on alchohol, it is hardly surprising that he seems to have spent little time organising his materials, on creating a narrative/ dramatic architecture. At his death, in 1881, he left the work unfinished. The end of Act II and the final chorus of Act V were unwritten. None of the music had been orchestrated.

Mussorgsky’s friend Rimsky-Korsakov produced an orchestrated version of the opera (in which he made many cuts and amendments to Mussorgsky’s work, as evidenced in his manuscript), which was premiered in St. Petersburg in 1886. In 1913 Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to prepare new orchestrations of parts of the work and to write a closing chorus for Act V (basing this on a genuine chant of the ‘Old Believers’ which Mussorgsky had noted down, presumably with the intention of making use of it). In the 1950s Shostakovich produced a new orchestration of the whole work, in which he was generally more faithful to Mussorgsky’s manuscript than Rimsky-Korsakov had been. This version was premiered in what was then Leningrad in 1959. In this production Welsh National Opera used the version by Shostakovich, which the addition of the Act V chorus written by Stravinsky (in an orchestration by Michael Nagy, since Stravinsky’s score apparently remains unpublished).

We might expect the presence of so many different ‘hands’ in the work as we have it to have added yet more confusion to that inherent in Mussorgsky’s original libretto and score. From the early Romantics onwards the idea of individual genius has, for most, been inseparably bound up with the creation of successful works of art, the latter an ‘expression’ of the former. But such a way of thinking doesn’t have a universal application. We can’t usefully talk, for example, of the great medieval cathedrals as works created by individual geniuses; these indisputably major works of art grew over many years through processes of accretion and ‘revision’ involving many ‘hands’. Had Mussorgsky completed Khovanschina in a form which later ages were happy with, then we should probably think of it as the product of an individual genius, as a work by a nineteenth-century Russian artist specifically (and perhaps exclusively) concerned with an episode in seventeenth-century Russian history. But since ‘our’ Khovanschina is a kind of trans-historical collaboration involving two later Russian artists, whose lives were profoundly affected by a later Russian tumult, the Russian Revolution, we find in it something that seems to speak, not of one man’s sensibility, but about a whole complex nation’s awareness of itself and its history or, indeed something that transcends Russian history to comment on universal historical questions and patterns.

This, certainly, is the spirit that informs David Pountney’s striking production, first seen in Cardiff in 2007 and now vividly revived. It is no accident that the Moscow of stage designer Johan Engels prominently incorporates elements of the Russian constructivism of the 1920s, nor that a red flag is waved during Act IV – both of which highlight analogies with the Russian Revolution. There is much else in the opera which, for anyone not ignorant of the world’s history during the 130 or so years since Mussorgsky’s death (or indeed anyone who has not read a newspaper in the last twenty years) will have an obvious relevance way beyond the specific events and times that were Mussorgsky’s immediate subject matter. To his credit Pountney largely resists the temptation to make such analogies too explicit in the way he stages the opera. Although he doesn’t ‘point up’ such connections too directly on stage, the programme notes which are presumably his work do refer to the ways in which Mussorgsky’s characters embody types recurrent in such struggles for power (not just in the 1680s) – types such as ‘the strong leader’, ‘the spiritual leader’ and the ‘westernised liberal leader’. Enough said, surely?

Pountney’s vision of the opera was well served by those who performed the work under his direction. The company’s musical director, Tomáš Hanus, ensures a compelling performance from the orchestra, consistently gripping in its remarkable balance of ferocity and discipline.  In Khovanschina the writing for the chorus, whether as the menacingly dissolute members of the Streltsy or as the ‘Old Believer’ choosing self-immolation is consistently magnificent, and it got a magnificent performance from the chorus of WNO. In reviewing WNO productions for some years now I have almost always had occasion to praise the company’s chorus, but never more so than here. The impact of several of these choruses was tremendous, literally spine-tingling. A.E. Housman once said that he recognised true poetry because it made his skin bristle. My hairs bristled more than once as I felt the power of Mussorgsky’s music as played by the orchestra and sung by the chorus on this occasion.

All of the soloists acquitted themselves well in roles which are musically demanding and don’t invite much in the way of subtle characterisation. Robert Hayward, as the amoral and weakening Prince Ivan Khovansky was a dominant, yet vulnerable, stage presence, and vocally powerful too, without any sense of strain. As his son, Prince Andrei, Adrian Dwyer was convincing as a self-serving, spoiled young man, quite without scruples. In the musical world of this opera being a tenor is enough to mark a character as weak (there’s no room here for a heroic tenor!) in a world dominated by bass-baritones! I was much impressed by Miklós Sebestyén’s Dosifei, a characterisation of real dignity and religious sincerity (however misguided), which was sung with authority and lucid vocal certainty. Mark le Brocq’s Prince Golitsyn rightly lacked the ruthlessness of his chief rivals for power; for all Golitsyn’s obvious limitations, le Brocq made him perhaps the most sympathetic of the major characters. (One’s real sympathy is with the endlessly exploited common people of Russia). Simon Bailey was a forceful figure as Shaklovity and was in good voice. Monika Sawa was a memorable Susanna, more for her voice (the soprano voice is a rare presence in the aural colours of this male-dominated opera), than for her acting. Claire Wild made the most of the limited possibilities of the role of the much-abused Emma. Adrian Thompson made a shrewd Scribe, and made me take more note of this unnamed character than I have done hitherto. I had mixed feelings about the Marfa of Sara Fulgoni. Fulgoni was more convincing in terms of human passion and sensuality than in prophetic power. (To articulate the simultaneous presence of both in a single character would surely defeat most singers!). Vocally, Fulgoni was impressive, endowed with the clarity and power to make her ‘voice’ heard in this male-dominated world.

The lighting choices of Fabrice Kebour made a further powerful contribution to this sombre, even bleak, production of a remarkable work. Khovanschina is, in a sense, an operatic epic. Like all but the very wealthiest companies, Welsh National Opera lacks the resources to present the work on a truly epic scale. More than once I was reminded of the opening Chorus of Shakespeare’s Henry V (another ‘national’ stage epic), in which the audience is enjoined to

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance[.]

This was expected of WNO’s audience, when the gathered army of the Streltsy necessarily appeared on stage in small numbers. An even more striking example occurred in Part One of Act IV, when Khovansky summoned not his Persian slaves but a single Persian slave, to dance for him. This directorial choice was presumably not just a matter of resources; by making the episode one in which a single woman (the astonishingly virtuosic Beate Vollack) danced erotically around Khovansky in his bath, before being stripped naked by him, Pountney may have placed less emphasis on Khovansky’s wealth, but he created a powerful emblem of how Khovansky exploits and debases others (Russian or Persian, male or female) to serve his on pleasure and desires, personal or political.

Episodic as Khovanschina is, in this production its scenes became a series of sombre tableaux, the whole a ‘monument’ to an entire culture (like the medieval cathedrals referenced earlier). It all made for a powerful and thought-provoking evening’s theatre, thought being provoked about far more than just the rise to power of the future Peter the Great.

Glyn Pursglove

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