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Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina is one of those hefty historical operas that, like Boris Godunov, Glinka’s Ivan Susanin, Rimsky Korsakov’s Tsar Sultan, Borodin’s Prince Igor or Vladigerov‘s Tsar Kaloyan were doomed to receive grand but static stagings in the old Eastern Bloc.

The Soviet Union, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and others were all prone to this. The music might be superb, but the acting dismal.

In Sofia, the young conductor Emil Tchakarov, a Mussorgsky champion, strove to bring his country into the 20th century. He never saw the 21st, dying aged only 33 in 1991 (Mussorgsky, as I still prefer to spell him, was himself dead by 42). Even Hungary was late in introducing modern productions of its national composer Ferenc Erkel, who specialised in grand historical stories and, paradoxically, operetta.

None of that can ever be said of a staging by David Pountney. Since his days at Cambridge, let alone his long reign at English National Opera, Pountney’s productions have been alive, vigorous, incisive, endlessly imaginative, always challenging and invariably daring.

It’s true of the three operas he collaborated on with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (Mr. Emmet Takes a Walk, The Doctor of Myddfai and Kommilitonen!), for all of which he supplied the libretto as well as directing. The last, for students in London and New York, a trilogy dealing with student unrest, was particularly dazzling and explosive.

Pountney, who originally staged Khovanshchina for WNO in 2007, has always had a penchant for East European opera. So, delivering an exciting, passionate, non-static Khovanshchina, now revitalised as a powerful part of the company’s Russian Revolution season, is a logical step for Pountney as head of Welsh National Opera. And that is what he has predictably done here. It has joined the long list of Pountney masterpieces, where the production itself rivals the original score and concept for excellence.

Otherwise called ‘The Khovansky Affair’, or perhaps ‘The Khovansky Controversy’ (the ending shchina indicates something of a melee, a mess, a (here, political) muddle verging on disaster, the story focuses on the struggle for power immediately following the accession of Peter the Great (then aged nine) and his elder half-brother Ivan to the Romanov throne of Russia.

Peter would become either a trail-blazer or a tyrant, depending on one’s view. But here the focus (you could not portray a Romanov Tsar onstage) is on the opposition, and the plots to reinstate ‘old’ beliefs and ‘old’ politics to the realm.

Central to the unfolding are two main characters: Dosifei (the (invented) leader of a religious sect, a former aristocrat, now bent on clinging to the old order or perishing in the endeavour. His performer, Miklós Sebestyén, is one of Hungary’s finest products; he was in Harry Kupfer’s Meistersinger this year at La Scala, was Welsh National’s Banquo, and will sing the Commendatore in next spring’s WNO Don Giovanni, plus the Marchese in its Verdi Force of Destiny).

The most important is the chief plotter, up to his ears in machinations, the eponymous Prince Khovansky, played here by Robert Hayward in what must surely be one of his most impressive appearances anywhere. Given a cricked neck in a typical piece of Pountneyism, so he sometimes looked like Giorgio Battistelli’s and Richard III (an opera WNO could well consider), he sang with a voice – and presence - of such forcefulness, authority and majesty one might have wondered why he shouldn’t be Tsar, Hayward was magnificent two decades ago, in his twenties, as ENO’s Wotan. Having caught up with, say, Alastair Miles, he is now stupendous. He will sing John the Baptist for Opera North next season.

The major piece of Pountney, furnished by brilliantly creative international designer Johan Engels, was a large white bath frontstage in which Khovansky comes to a Marat-like sticky end. Having perished, it wasn’t clear whether he had to stay in the bath or was able to disappear beneath.

One of the bits of fun about Pountney productions is that even given their huge power they tend to become parodies of his own style; it becomes a game of spot-the-Leitmotif: trudging grey-clad unfortunates, elaborate platforms and stage paraphernalia (the labyrinthine Greek Passion at the Royal Opera was a classic), mouldy uniforms, prevailing glooms picked out by unpredictable lighting effects (Fabrice Kebour, who will light La Forza del Destino, must have worked his socks off to achieve such subtle and beautifully focused detail here), bizarre inventions and distractions – are eminently recognisable..

There were too many sensational highlights in this Khovanshchina to dwell on all: one must pick out a handful. But there were also a few criticisms, to which the same applies. The orchestra shone, but the prelude, ‘Dawn over the Moscow river’, began surely too loud and continued as such, to what purpose was not obvious. Czech Music Director Tomáš Hanus, brought up on Smetana’s Vltava (the music: he was actually born in Brno, on the Svitava and Sratka), which evolves from a tinkling fountain into a mighty torrent, should surely know something about rivers. Another negative result was that by trundling along weightily it modifies the surprise of the mighty brass and bass drum entry.


Sara Fulgoni as Marfa with Mark le Brocq as Prince Vasily Golistyn. Pictures: Clive Barda

Dosifei’s first entry, and arguably his second, were both rather inconsequential. He merely slithered on from stage rear: somewhat bathetic. And when an elaborate, splendidly offstage-lit drawbridge of a platform emerged, or was released, in Act III, it cried out to be the route by which the self-sacrificial chorus of Dosifei’s supporters exited to their bonfire. Instead, they trudged out at floor level stage right, only to reappear equally dully stage front left. It seemed an opportunity missed.

When the final burst of lantern light came on, it was a bright white, but failed to convey the presumably intended impact of glorious apotheosis or transfiguration. Given that – despite a prevalence of red onstage – we had not had the conflagration, they might perhaps better have been a blast of red.

It’s worth mentioning that the mass-suicidal Revd. Jim Jones figure, Dosifei, was sung in WNO’s original by a superb young (albeit now less young) British singer, Julian Close, a true bass who is carving out a name for himself, and who appears in this year’s From the House of the Dead. Indeed one oddity of this Khovanshchina was that at times – quite a few times – the singing sounded forward-vowelled and far more Czech than Russian. Only gradually did this seem to rectify itself.   

Yet time and again the music and the staging hit the mark. Hanus will shortly conduct Dvořák’s Rusalka at Vienna’s State Opera, a measure of his recognition over a period of almost two decades. Here it was not just his nursing of the orchestra (good sounding strings, a wealth of woodwind detail, solo clarinet above all, cor anglais notably, but paired flutes too, and the full woodwind ensemble, which evoked an extraordinary atmosphere), and brass which at times showed miraculous restraint at major moments, creating a kind of emotional counterpoint to the action, but his managing of the choir that is so important.

WNO’s chorus is quite phenomenal, and as Mussorgsky’s opera evolved had plenty to do, first the men especially, and later the women. Often both groups were split antiphonally in the many, beautifully contrasted, folk-song like numbers. At times, as in one particular peasants’ hymn, or in a gorgeous end of act choir pianissimo, the men, the superb tenors especially, sounded like the very best of Welsh Male Voice Choirs, and that is some tribute. 

Early on came a superlative performance from tenor Adrian Thompson as a bleating clerk or notary. Thompson has proved such a glorious interpreter of sensitive English song that one is always taken aback by his ability to act onstage. Time and again he surprises.  


Adrian Thompson as the Scribe      

His antics here, clad in a pair of bizarre period breeches and pursued by a vengeful crowd, then scampering, or rather hoisted, up a kind of metallic crane, whose interior dramatically collapsed to yield up a mass of books-cum-documents, like an escapee from the Makropulos Case, were quite gripping. He wobbled, scuttled, cowered and nervously tittered such that one could have watched him for half an hour more. The voice came across like the best, most cowardly or peevish of Smetana’s comic characters. A performance to relish. 

The tight blocking of the chorus, as a semi-prelude heralds Khovansky’s first entry, was notable; and when son Andrei (Adrian Dwyer) brings in tow his young new fad Emma (Claire Wild, remarkable in her enticing, virtually balletic floor-level posture), a new dimension is seemingly added.

This also is where we first meet Marfa, the Old Believer who acts as a kind of moral compass throughout the story. The trio Emma-Marfa-The Prince is one of the comparatively few soloist set pieces of a traditional kind in the opera. It was scintillating,

 The real ballet came from Elena Thomas as the Persian slave who dances about as sexy and provocative a dance, lower parts on display, as I can remember onstage – and that includes in Salome.

The recipient of this lascivious flaunting is Hayward’s Khovansky himself, leering from his bath tub, over which she cavorts as if, like him, she has only one thing on her mind. Her lumber-stirring acrobatics, fabulously well enacted, ended up bringing into play a part of the set that had long been teasing: a large, and now vast, ball like one of Neptune’s moons, which had hung like a tentative crescent moon above the first act (presumably rising over the Moscow river), and which now became – well, I’m not sure what, a kind of giant testicle. It called for a brilliant exit for her, which seemed to be being built to quite cleverly: in the end, it was a bit perfunctory.


Robert Hayward as Prince Khovansky with Helena Thomas as the Persian


There were two figures who are perhaps insufficiently used, a suggestion of the piecemeal process by which the often drunken Mussorgsky over nine years approached this, his equal last opera (large parts of Sorochinsky Fair survive too). The libretto is his, though he had an ally, Vladimir Stasov, and he justifiably allows himself historical anachronisms to add tension to the story. But one would like to have seen the characters of both Shaklovity (Simon Bailey), leader of the aristocrats (boyars); and of Prince Golitsyn (Mark Le Brocq), the commissar closest to the teenage royal princes and the regent (their sister Sofia), further developed. In the story, they get relatively short shrift, although Golitsyn’s row with Khovansky is one of the strongest scenes in the opera.

Shaklovity, who denounces the Khovanskys in resonant tones at the outset, heralding the political struggle, seemed to hover about a bit like old Hamlet’s ghost; even the stabbing of Khovansky seemed a bit fuddled. Golitsyn, for all his gold finery (Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s deliberately indeterminate costumes, a considerable success, suited a Pountney production perfectly), and memories of past victories (over the Poles, notably, though the Teutonic Germans were the main threat), gets a roasting from Sara Fulgoni’s always arresting, and here domineering Marfa, witch-like in a Dvořák kind of way (Rusalka, Kate and the Devil, St. Ludmila), and is turned an eerie blue by Kebour’s lighting in a remarkable feat of precision as she predicts his demise (or at least, here, his exile).

Being of the royal blood of Lithuania is no empty boast from Ivan Khovansky. Lithuania was the greatest power in north-west Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries,

Even as Sweden dominated it in the 17th century, Poland/Saxony in the 18th and greater Poland/Ukraine in the late 19th. The Lithuanian connection would be enough to persuade Khovansky that his family was indeed of royal blood, and might even aspire to the throne of Ivan the Terrible. The Romanovs had only gained the throne by election earlier that century.

The mesmerising clarinet-led dance over pizzicato strings opening Act III had everything the start of Act I didn’t. Marfa’s folk song acquired an enchanting accompaniment of paired, contrary motion flutes. Engels’ set evolved to give the feel of collapse, of tenements in decline and street dereliction, just as some fabulous use of cor anglais peppers the next sequences; while the delicate brass for the Marfa-Dosifei scene produced the exquisite purest of sounds.

Dosifei’s lament for his motherland, with touchingly grieving strings, brought echoes of the Volga Boatman, rarely far from Mussorgsky’s best set pieces: certainly, here the whole steppe, Volga and Dnieper and Oka, seemed to be lamenting the tragic end of an era. Pountney has a gift for directing drunken scenes. The pink-orange attired Streltsy (the Khovanskys’ originally musketed guardsmen), rolling around pissed, each seemed to have something particular to do, and moreover, they had conned their moves as well as some have to con their lines. I thought the solo Streltsy (Julian Boyce, Laurence Cole) were quite outstanding.

superb chorus

The superb WNO chorus

The women have one of their glorious choruses here, berating the men and calling them useless ne’er-do-wells. Mussorgsky times them well: each moment they open their mouths, they produce a marvellous contrast to the rest. The WNO female choruses were quite gorgeous, the reduced orchestral accompaniment of them outstanding. An all-women solo sequence, between the rich-toned Marfa and an acidic critical observer (Susanna, Monika Sawa) also froze the atmosphere splendidly.

Khovansky’s blasé ignoring of Golitsyn’s warning of danger (both are from royal Lithuania) reveals us a different figure, which more than justifies (‘what, danger in my house?’) the louche bath scene. Extraordinarily, perhaps because the bath is on a dais, Hayward when he arises from the bath bare chested cuts a huge, even gigantic, figure (the light was crucial here). It had all the intensity of Caesar’s famous ‘I am constant as the northern star’ speech, just before Casca plunges the first dagger. The twisted neck was part of this dominant yet flawed character: a visible mark of present or past vulnerability.

At times it’s a trial to follow the personal details of this intricate Russian saga. But with Khovansky we always know: he has the potential to master the state (indeed historically, defending Moscow, already has); has the power to act; and is a seasoned manipulator. But he now declines, like a spent force, plunged into a seedy end. Hauntingly, the bath becomes his tomb, the drizzling showerhead the best kind of Orthodox cross he can claim.

By contrast, the Scribe has acquired new life, and returns to pronounce an amazing declamation. His reuse is a striking example of competent, inventive libretto structuring; his cackling exit, a kind of commentary on the whole sorry state of affairs. When Hayward appears on the ramp, we see the end is in sight. Gone are the swaggering boots; he is barefooted, struggling with a stick, which he waves in a flailing, crazed manner. And yet, even thus bereft, he still has the aura of a major figure: a Grand Inquisitor, almost.

Before the impressive Dosifei signals the end of the Old Believers, and a slightly limp not-quite-love scene between the cuckolded Marfa and Andrei (marked by her wielding his red garment, an echo of the much more effective Persian dancer’s dazing of the doomed Khovansky by something similar and stronger) spins out the slightly overstretched Act V, why is it, one wonders, that the beaten Streltsy, having brought on stakes, like single-strut (plain upright) Roman crosses, thus acquiescing in their defeat, get blinded just before the announcement that they are pardoned. By this stage, it seems, anything goes.

A few analogies occur: the late stages summon up from Mussorgsky something similar to Dvořák’s scoring of his grand opera about the Russian succession, Dimitrij. And there were two rather fascinating anticipations of Britten: at the close, a shudder of the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes; and an eerie preecho of Miles’s ‘malo’ dirge from The Turn of the Screw. Strange.

Roderic Dunnett


The WNO Russian season continues with From The House of the Dead on 02-11-17, and Eugene Onedin on 03-11-17 while the visit to Birmingham Hippodrome ends with Die Fledermaus on 04-11-17


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