Kirov Opera @ Royal Opera House, London: 3, 5 August 2005
Kirov Opera: Khovanshchina
Though musical values were undoubtedly higher for Khovanshchina, the
second offering of the Kirov Opera's short ROH season, the staging was a lot
less atmospheric than in Monday's Boris Godunov.
Whereas the problem
with the Boris production was an overdose of confused and confusing
symbolism, some of it unclear, this version of Mussorgsky's last (and
unfinished) opera seemed stuck in nineteenth-century scenic values.
so, that at times it felt like we were sitting through a Hans Christian
Anderson fairy tale.
This was unfortunate, because there is barely a laugh in this work, which is
four-and-a-half hours of Russian gloom, with not a light heart in sight.
Nobody wins in this story, which describes the conflict between the Old
Believers, who want to stick to Russia's past, and rival noblemen, who want
to drag it into a new era (sort of).
It could be said that the fans of Mother
Russia triumph, in that they refuse to give in to their enemies, but in
order to do so they have to burn themselves to death in church. Not a happy
tale, nor one which has a clear protagonist nor a focus of any kind at
times, and I'm convinced that had Mussorgsky lived to see the project
through, some of the dramaturgical problems of this sprawling tale would
have been sorted out.
On this occasion, the Pied Piper of Hamelin-style scenery by Fedor
Fedorovsky (reproduced by Viacheslav Okunev) certainly didn't do the opera
full justice. Nor was Leonid Baratov's static direction helpful - the chorus
just stand about hour after hour, singing beautifully of course, but looking
totally redundant. The costumes by Tatiana Noginova were just like the
production - lavish in a retro way, but rather bland in comparison to the
kind of productions that our two London-based companies put on at their
Valery Gergiev's conducting was just as authoritative as in Boris,
getting straight down to things with a delicious account of the Prelude -
Dawn over the Moscow River. The orchestra sounded more rested and relaxed,
but once or twice things began to dwindle (perhaps due to the work's tricky
genesis, which was played in Shostakovich's 1960 orchestration). Yet they
were always impressive, and the chorus was in stronger voice than earlier in
the week as well.
Five of the Kirov's great singers were deployed on this occasion, which
helped us to appreciate the opera's brilliance. Standing above all, however,
and at times showing the difference between a world-class singer and a
provincial one, was Olga Borodina as Marfa, an Old Believer and former
mistress of Prince Andrei Khovansky. Few mezzo sopranos can produce such
natural tone in the lower register as she, and her breath control, phrasing,
and emotional dedication to the role were utterly convincing.
Prince Andrei was sung outstandingly by Vladimir Galuzin. His tenor voice
has had its ups and downs over the years but here he was in excellent form,
which bodes well for his portrtayal of Calaf in Turandot tonight and
on Saturday afternoon. His father, Prince Ivan Khovansky, was sung by Sergei
Alexashkin, exceptionally commanding, as were Nikolai Putilin as the Boyar
Shaklovity and Vladimir Vaneev as Dosifei, the latter in much better voice
than in Monday's Boris. It was a shame that Alexei Steblianko was
suffering from the flu, for despite his determination to go on, he had no
voice at all during parts of the very long first scene of Act II.
In all, it's good to see a return to the high musical standards for which
the company is renowned, but a shame they still suffer from old-fashioned