Saving the Best for Last – Mussorgsky’s Khovanschina at the Wiener Staatsoper

AustriaAustria Mussorgsky, Khovanshchina: Soloists, Slovak Philharmonic Chorus, Wiener Staatsoper Children’s Chorus, Chorus & Orchestra / Michael Güttler (conductor), Staatsoper, Vienna, 11.9.2017. (RP)

Ain Anger as Dosifei © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH/Michael Pöhn
Ain Anger as Dosifei © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH/Michael Pöhn

Prince Ivan Khovansky – Ferruccio Furlanetto
Prince Andrei Khovansky – Christopher Ventris
Prince Vasily Golitsyn – Herbert Lippert
Schaklovity – Andrzej Dobber
Dosifei – Ain Anger
Marfa – Elena Maximova
Susanna – Lydia Rathkolb
A Scribe – Thomas Ebenstein
Emma – Caroline Wenborne
Kouzka -Carlos Osuna
Varsonofiev – Marcus Pelz
Streshnev – Wolfram Igor Derntl
First Strelets – Hans Peter Kammerer
Second Strelets -Ayk Martirossian
Golitsyn’s Servant – Benedikt Kobel

Director – Lev Dodin
Set and Costume Designer – Alexander Borovskiy
Lighting – Damir Ismagilov
Production Assistant – Valery Galendeev
Choreography – Yuri Vasilkov
Movement Director – Iurii Khamutianskiy
Dramaturgy – Dina Dodina
Chorus Masters – Thomas Lang, Jozef Chabroň, Johannes Mertl

A month’s travel across Great Britain and Central Europe provided the opportunity to take in opera productions, a true embarrassment of musical riches. In the UK there was the riveting concert performance of Britten’s Peter Grimes with Stewart Skelton at the Edinburgh International Festival and Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito on a perfect August day at Glyndebourne with Anna Stéphany’s sensational Sesto, which I did not review but another Seen and Heard International colleague did a few days later at the London Proms. In Vienna there were sold-out performances of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Verdi’s Il trovatore with the incomparable Anna Netrebko. Hands down however, the best of the lot was the revival of the Wiener Staatsoper’s 2014 production of Mussorgsky’s Khovanschina.

Khovanschina is loosely based on the 1682 Streltsy Rebellion, when rampaging soldiers of an elite Moscow garrison of soldiers murdered relatives and supporters of the ten-year-old boy who would become Peter the Great, and its aftermath. In the opera the opposing factions are represented by the Princes Khovansky, the leaders of the Streltsy, Golitsyn, who helped open feudal Russia to the West and the Old Believers led by the religious zealot Dosifei. It was against the law to portray members of the Imperial Family on stage, so the real protagonist, the young Peter, is neither seen nor heard in the opera. The ideological conflicts and power struggles result in the murder of the elder Khovansky, Golitsyn’s exile and the mass suicide of the Old Believers. The latter, an incident not based in history, makes for a scorcher of an ending.

I have bewailed black stages, sets and costumes thrust upon opera audiences from creative teams who either lack the imagination or the budget to not go with the flow; numerous productions seem to be taken directly from the same boring play book. Director Lev Dodi and set designer Alexander Borovskiy are not of that ilk. Rather than a colorful, folkloric depiction of Mother Russia, theirs is a grim, powerful depiction of a turbulent time, where death and destruction reign. The stage is dominated by a multilevel structure of charred black timber, further divided into multiple sections that can be raised and lowered independently and from which the outlines of ruined buildings and crosses can be discerned. A wall of fresh timber was hung at the back of the stage, perhaps signifying the hopes for a new Russia under the reign of the young Tsar.

Damir Ismagilov’s lighting was crucial in creating this overpowering atmosphere. A red wash illuminated the sky with the flames signifying burning buildings and the blood spilled as the conflict rages. Principals and chorus were costumed alike in black, so any flash of naked flesh or white garment became a potent image. Emma’s pale, bare shoulders telegraphed the fear and vulnerability of a woman powerless to protect herself from the brutal lust of Andrei Khovansky. Dosifei and Marfa both stripped down to white undergarments, which when softly lit had an air of sensuality, while a harsher glare transformed them into symbols of religious fervor. The Old Believers too doff their black garb to wear the white of martyrdom as they prepare for their fiery deaths.

The characters are crowded on the various levels of the set and directly face the audience. Even the Dance of the Persian Slaves is sandwiched into the crowded middle section of the set. A few scenes take place down stage, such as when Marfa sings of her love for Andrei Khovansky; and later when Dosifei urges her to save herself from the death sentence imposed upon the Old Believers, creating a sense of intimacy otherwise absent in the production. The set not only serves to focus and intensify the drama, but also the music. The choruses are crammed on to the various levels and sections of the set, appearing silently and seamlessly when called upon to sing, and creating a stunning antiphonal effect. The offstage brass orchestra is heard but never seen, its brilliant fanfares piercing through the repressive, gloomy atmosphere.

The cast was uniformly excellent; most of them appeared in the original run of the production. Veteran basso Ferruccio Furlanetto, whose voice still rings with authority, and Herbert Lippert as Golitsyn squared off as old foes, nursing grudges resulting from years of rivalry. Both ultimately are washed away by the sweeping tides of change. Christoph Ventris embodied the debauchery and dissolution of the Streltsy with his unbridled lust for Emma, sung with pure and gleaming tone by Carline Wenborne.

Marfa is the most fascinating character in the opera, and her mysteriousness and sensuality were wondrously depicted by Elena Maximova. The only comic relief was provided by the scribe of Thomas Ebenstein, who has refined paranoia and obsequiousness down to a fine science. Towering above all physically, vocally and dramatically, however, was bass Ain Anger as Dosifei. It was a monumental performance of the mystical, fanatical, uncompromising religious zealot that was the bedrock of the production.

The drama on stage was equaled by Michael Güttler’s rendering of Mussorgsky’s sweeping score with its magnificent choral scenes, in the Shostakovich version dating from the 1950s. (The opera was unfinished when the composer died.) The combined choruses were superb, especially the men, who are given some of the most stirring music to sing in the entire opera. Trumpets blared and bells chimed, but Güttler also created soft, shimmering passages of exquisite transparency, which permitted the singers to whisper directly to the audience. Seldom in my experience has a production served the music as well as this one did.

A friend accompanied me to all three operas in Vienna. He’s not an opera fan, but went in the spirit of friendship and equipped with a sense of adventure – much the same reasons that found me atop Mount Hoverla (6,762 feet) in the Ukraine just a few days earlier. As we left the theater, he said, ‘That one was the best’. It doesn’t take howling winds to realize that you have reached the summit.

Rick Perdian

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