Good to Hear Khovanshchina Again, Albeit in the Softened Shostakovich Edition

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mussorgsky, Khovanshchina: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Tomáš Hanus (conductor). Venue Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno. 24.10.2017. (RJF)

WNO’s Khovanshchina (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

Since his appointment as supremo at WNO David Pountney has pursued a policy of themed seasons often involving operas of very divergent origins. This autumn 2017 season is the centenary of the Bolshevik 1917 revolution in Russia and diverse works from or influenced by that country form the basis of the works selected. In his essay in the programme new music director Tomáš Hanus finds much to justify the works presented. He writes too about the dynamics, strong attitude and beauty of Mussorgsky’s music as having provided significant inspiration to the WNO Company. It is a view – with which I have some personal sympathy – having first noted the individual patina of Russian music and song on the 78rpm shellac disc of the great bass Chaliapin singing the ‘Song of the Volga Boatman’. I was fortunate to grow up in a household where there were other 78s of the Russian bass, as well as. of the more commonly heard and retailed efforts of Björling, Schipa, Gigli and their popular colleagues such as Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth.

My father had heard Chaliapin at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in the 1930s. An artisan, he could only afford a cheap seat at the rear of the auditorium. Seeing vacant seats at the front of the stalls the great bass drew those from the back, my father included, to the vacant front seats! Impressed as I was by Chaliapin’s voice on those 78s, it was the emergence of the complete Boris Godunov from HMV featuring the Bulgarian Boris Christoff that really gripped me and introduced me to the colours of Russian operatic music. It was Christoff’s voice and interpretations on those recordings that impressed, and I determined that one day I would see and hear him in that opera in the theatre. I had to wait 20 years, but it was worth it. By that time, I knew a little more of the mighty handful, as they were called, of contemporaneous Russian composers and understood more of Mussorgsky’s life that explained his inability to finish his operatic works in particular, leaving others to complete, or put polish, onto his efforts. Thus, with Khovanschina Mussorgsky’s efforts were, at various times, added to and modified by Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Ravel and Shostakovich. On this occasion it was in the latter’s orchestration that this production, by David Pountney was first seen in 2007.when it was sung in English.

In his review of the premiere of this run in Cardiff, my colleague Glyn Pursglove (review) gives details of the complications of the composer’s life as he sought to bring the work to conclusion dominated by lower male voices. Of significant note in this performance is the Budapest born Miklós Sebestyén in respect of both his singing and his acted portrayal of Dosifei, the leader of the Old Believers in the tale of religious schism in the Russian Orthodox Church; in Russian history, as so often elsewhere, religious differences are the root cause of the conflict that is the basis of the plot. Dosifei interrupts family difficulties within the Khovansky family, notable powerbrokers with affluence and a private army. The father and son argue about a woman whilst the father, sung and acted powerfully by Robert Hayward with his vacillating son, Prince Andrei sung by Adrian Dwyer holding his own as an actor as well as singer. Mark Le Brocq’s Prince Golitsyn was also well sung. Hayward was reprising his 2007 assumption, sung in English on that occasion. Of the women Monika Sawa sang a notable Susanna, her clear soprano being particularly welcome in this male dominated domain. However, it was Sara Fulgoni as Marfa who really dominated as singer and actress such as to be a match to Miklós Sebestyén. She sang powerfully, particularly in Marfa’s contribution in the last act in which there were variations from the Shostakovich edition.

In highlighting individual singers I must not omit mention of the orchestra and chorus. Whilst I personally would have preferred the Rimsky version, finding Shostakovich’s orchestration too soft compared with the original and perhaps missing that patina I love so much, I must give credit to Tomáš Hanus for the colours he drew. However, above even the orchestra’s contribution under his baton was that of the augmented chorus who produced a vigorous and sonorous sound, and in Russian too it be noted! As to the 1917 Russian Revolution, I did see a Red Flag waved, but overall the set and costumes were somewhat haphazard and production details rather lacking in terse vitality.

Robert J Farr

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