Agitpropera on the grand scale

pictore of the old believers in Khovanskygate: A National Enquiry

Grim reaping: mass suicide beckons as the Old Believers prepare for the end. Pictures: Donald Cooper

Khovanskygate: A National Enquiry

The Freedom Tent, Midland Arts Centre


GRAHAM Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company may not be alone in drawing untrained members of the community on to the operatic stage; but it may well be the best ensemble in the world for turning mass opera into a searing and relevant political rant.

Vick’s speciality – when not directing at the Met, Mariinsky or Munich - is seeking rundown or out of the way Brummie venues – a mothballed TV studio, the half-knocked down Bull Ring Centre, a massive marquee at Villa Park (or as here, abutting Cannon Hill’s MAC Arts Centre), drawing in chorus singers, dancers, and unveiling socio-psychological drama on a big scale: hard-hitting (Don Giovanni or ‘He Had it Coming’), mentally twisted (Berg’s Wozzeck), cynical corruption (Fidelio), self-discovery (Bernstein’s Candide), chokingly pathetic (Britten’s Curlew River).

But Modest Musorgsky’s Khovanshchina – or as Vick has it here, Khovanskygate: A National Enquiry – is one of the biggest plums in the repertoire, and surely one of the most challenging to piece together.

It needs, for instance, an orchestra like the CBSO – fervid strings, shiveringly beautiful cor anglais for Marfa (in one moment BOC’s terrific regular conductor, Stuart Stratford, got the whole orchestra to sigh), nursing clarinets in the Act 3 slow march prelude, or a superb tuned percussionist teasing out xylophone - to shine through a score so orchestrally scintillating (though it was Rimsky-Korsakov and later Shostakovich who put together a decent orchestral version; apart from a scene or two, Musorgsky, who died around the time he revisited his early 1870s outline, scored only a couple of scenes; the rest was in short score, just a handful of two to six lines at the most).

The CBSO brass were a pretty big hit – and there’spicture of Keel Watson as Dosifei, leader of the Old Believers, and Claudia Huckle as Marfa. loads for them to do. But Musorgsky calls for additional brass – supplied by a super team called Banda, students at the Birmingham Conservatoire, with their efficient though uncredited conductor. It needs a humdinger of a chorus too, and Jonathan Laird has pieced together a choir of astonishing quality from just ordinary folk off the sidewalks.

Keel Watson as Dosifei, leader of the Old Believers, and Claudia Huckle as Marfa.

Yet – playing brutal police, G8-like protesters, gay-hating religious fanatics, they sang like trained singers. I’d have lined them up for Beethoven’s Ninth the next day, such was the quality, and the clarity of diction, and the warm, full-bodied tone. We didn’t hear a lot of the CBSO Children’s chorus, but they were there, their plucky girls and one or two courageous boys, up with the orchestra, chanting their bit.

Vick’s direction is always spot on. One might better call it crowd management, though he has plenty of helmeted riot cops (those backing Khovansky are the Streltsy, nasty pieces of work) to assist. The moves are mapped, and the emotional highs.

He feels happiest when squeezing a sparky political point out of some relatively harmless piece of text, though he didn’t have to here – it’s all in the libretto, compiled by the composer with the reliable Vladimir Stasov as his historical guide and aide.

At times, Vick’s stagings verge on self-parody – the ranting from platforms, spitting from halfway up a lighting gantry, parading around in buses and motorbike sidecars and police vans with ‘Scum’ and ‘Wanker’ scrawled across them. But there’s no doubting, it gets you in the goolies – or the solar plexus - every time.

This was an evening of high drama, set originally in the early 18th century, when Peter the Great was striving to fight off his opponents and unify Russia around the new St. Petersburg, but here, on and off, transferred to any quasi-dictatorship, any time, anywhere.

Baritone Eric Greene (Khovansky) leads the tub-thumping politicians, till he gets bumped off by the other side’s plenipotentiary Shaklovity (Robert Winslade Anderson: his big recitative and aria in Act 3, beautifully hymnic, seemed to flow like a river); with his son and heir (tenor Joseph Guyton) in constant attendance, waiting for the main chance, ambitious yet wavering in his allegiances.

Even more impressively, tenor Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts, a veteran of just about every English opera company (Opera North’s Peter Grimes, a crazed Queen of Spades Hermann at Grange Park, etc.) is drafted in as the middle-of-the-road, liberal politician Golitsyn. Lloyd Roberts is a spiffing performer: the aching voice, pained expression and stiff, finger-gnarled gestures are de rigueur for him whatever he assays. His big, almost dancy exchange with the Old Believer leader, Dosifei, was quite riveting. The end of Act 2 aria stood out a mile – for quality. Hence a tip-top performance, beautifully enunciated in Max Hoehn’s not always quite followable, occasionally poetry-shy, but finely and cleverly crafted new translation.Picture of police wading into protesters

Yet the three performers who, for me, stood out were contralto Claudia Huckle as the heart and soul of the opera, the sympathetic traditional believer Marfa; Paul Nilon as the hectored and bullied ‘scribe’ – here journalist (Podjaci); and Keel Watson as Dosifei, the spiritual leader who – when all is lost – leads his followers to a graphic mass suicide.

Government by consent . . . and the police wade in

Huckle has a fabulous voice, as rich and purply and resonant as the term contralto suggests. Like all of these singers, without a hint of a microphone or artificial aid, it carried right across the venue, showing just why some people flock to opera and cannot abide the genre Musical, where an array of speakers dictates all – and disembodies. A wonderful, fabulously alluring performer. Slavonic (or here, mock-Slav) repertoire seems perfect for her. You could imagine her in Dvořák, singing Jezibaba in Rusalka, or Svatava in the same composer’s St. Ludmila, or Boris Godunov’s daughter Xenia (actually a soprano), the achingly beautiful princess role in Dimitrij.

In each of her big arias – the second comes in Act 3 – and her appeals to Dosifei, or the mystic hymn she sings picked out by tuned percussion, there was a poignancy and tenderness not just in every word Huckle sang, but in her every move; even though she was got up, emblazoned T-shirt and jeans, like an old crazy sect member or protest-leading groupie.

The mottoes that adorned every dais and stanchion and the placard-waving Jesus crowd chorus – ‘Homosexuality is a disease’ (something Marfa’s friend Susanna is obsessed about in a seemingly autobiographical way), ‘Khovansky for Tsar’, ‘Don’t ignore the abortion holocaust’ and their opposites,’ Decriminalise sodomy’, set the tone for the whole show. For the other side, it was ‘Give us back our future’. With Vick in charge, it’s certainly a case of passion politics.

Paul Nilon, a regular with Vick’s ensemble since he sang – fabulously - Odysseus in Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses, sang the tricky role of the scribe who, standing outside events yet embroiled in them, is in a sense the other soul of this piece. The Journalist in some ways recalls the Simpleton – the helpless viewer of the action in Boris Godunov, the opera Musorgsky completed three years before he embarked on the longpicture of Keel Watson as Dosifei, leader of the Old Believers trying to inspire his followers drawn-out Khovanshchina. Dashing around,  strapped on a white police van, manhandled, Nilon cuts a pathetic, tragic figure.

The voice is as breathtakingly appealing across the range as it is singing Baroque opera (for Garsington, for instance). His first exchange with Winslade Anderson (‘Hey, scribbler, God bless you…’) set the scene for a bumper evening vocally.

Keel Watson as Dosifei, leader of the Old Believers trying to inspire his followers

The other figure who is – now – always outstanding in Vick’s productions is the bass-baritone Keel Watson. One has watched Watson emerge as a singer, from the very early days when he produced a highly presentable Mid-Wales Opera Papageno (his acting has never been in doubt; witness his awesome Pizarro opposite Winslade Anderson’s Florestan in their Fidelio at Aston Villa). But now the voice is better coached and firmly supported – magnificently so, one might say; everything Dosifei uttered had a strength of conviction that came through the voice, a rewarding richness, and a marvellous clarity. You could honestly say that everything he touches is gold.

Were there other heroes? The women’s chorus, pitched against the men and often on their own, proved wonderful: their part in the build-up to Ivan Khovansky’s first Act I entry, a mesmerising rising and falling melody, was outstanding. A super tenor of around 30, Ben Thapa, a former G4 member who was a runner-up in the first ever series of X-Factor, sang Kouzka, another tragic figure (nominally a police student), who makes his mark at the start but reappears near the end in a tussle with the baton-wielding Streltsy, warning against rumour and showing himself as good a poet as the Journalist: a lovely sound.

Giuseppe Di Iorio did the lighting – a nightmare of fine timing and shrewd positioning and pointing across this vast arena; has one ever seen Di Iorio light anything less than superbly, at Garsington, Glyndebourne, Grange Park, Holland Park? No.

But if anyone deserves out thanks, as BOC’s only begetter Graham Vick points out, it is Peter Moores, the most enabling sponsor of opera in this country. We owe to him Chandos Records’ ever-increasing series Opera in English, which since recording, at his instigation, Reginald Goodall’s ENO Ring cycle in the 1970s has gone under the auspices of the Peter Moores Foundation ( to embrace more than 24 composers: Smetana, Berg, Bartók and Poulenc in addition to the Italian (a dozen Verdi, four each of Donizetti and Puccini), German (4 Strauss) and Austrian (6 Mozart) giants. Over 70 operas have now been recorded. Wherever there is a worthwhile opera project in England, there Moores puts his money. He is truly the fairy godfather of the whole genre.

That he put his trust in Vick’s fiendishly original, in your face Birmingham Opera Company shows Moores’s discernment and determination to make causes possible. This Khovanskygate was a fitting reward for his trust and his treasures.

Runs at The Freedom Tent, Midland Arts Centre, Birmingham till Thursday 30 April.

Roderic Dunnett 


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