Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Khovanshchina @ Coliseum, London

23, 25, 28 January, 1, 6, 8, 11 February 2003

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: Grant Smith)

Modest Musorgsky started nine operatic projects and only finished one – Boris Godunov – and even that gets performed in versions tweaked by other composers Khovanshchina was largely unorchestrated when Musorgsky died and was subsequently completed by Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel, Stravinsky and Shostakovitch.

It is this last version presented at ENO, to the delight of Oleg Caetani, the Russian-Italian conductor who makes his ENO debut with this production. After the opening night I shared his enthusiasm: the music is ravishing, with lush sweeping melodies and dramatic Kremlin bells that give you goose bumps.

Like Boris the work is historical, but from a period at the end of the seventeenth century when a power vacuum resulted in three main factions slugging it out for control. This opera is about the class struggle – perhaps this is why it was performed during the soviet era – except that the ‘classes’ are the traditional ones: the monarch, the divided aristocracy (the boyars propped up by crack troops the Streltsy, and those seeking a more modern, Westernised state), the antediluvian Church (the Old Believers), and everybody else.

Prince Ivan Khovansky and his son Andrey lead the boyars. I’m not even going to attempt to relate the plot of the opera – it’s far too complex – but suffice to say that as the three factions struggle for power, growing in the background is the influence of the young Tsar Peter the Great who will eventually triumph.

This Francesco Zambello production is a marvel (it won an Olivier Award when first seen in 1994). Absolutely minimalist sets, inspired use of lighting (Paul Pyant) and amazingly versatile high-tech Meccano-like towers create an atmosphere against which scenes of violence, idealism and treachery are played out.

The towers first make a strange structure reminiscent of the constructivist agitprop hoardings of the early Bolshevik era, carrying the indistinct, shadowy face of Tsar Peter. This seems almost an irrelevance, especially when the cantilevered tower opens like a flower to reveal the larger-than-life Khovansky in all his glory and accompanied by banners and marvellous skeletal horses: truly a dramatic entrance. In later scenes the towers are broken, reformed and moved about the stage to create a series of platforms, the sides forming steps signifying status, on to which the peasants climb when their superiors are not around. Still there, though, and growing in size and strength as his power increases, is the image of Peter – disregarded by the protagonists until it is too late.

A starry cast is led by Willard White as Khovansky, a figure of tremendous stage presence and authority, even when cavorting in the bath-house with his Persian slaves wearing nothing but a black jock strap. His singing, like the whole of the starry cast, is magnificent (and in a story of this complexity it is a welcome plus that the diction throughout is excellent). Tom Randle is his weak son Andrey, an unusually unsympathetic role for this charismatic tenor.

The UK’s best-loved and finest bass John Tomlinson is Dosifey, the leader of the Old Believers – mesmeric in the first scene though an unwelcome beat appeared in his voice as the evening wore on. David Rendall’s warm tenor was in good form as Prince Golitsyn, ditto Pavlo Hunka as a striking Shaklovity, the boyar who assassinates Khovansky.

Perhaps most enjoyable of all was Jill Grove, making her ENO debut as the non-historical Marfa. An Old Believer who also dabbles in fortune telling and harbours an old love for Andrey Khovansky, she’s an unlikely character but her marvellous warm mezzo soprano – and some fine acting – were enough to convince the audience.

The ENO chorus – currently under threat of swingeing cuts – were also in customary fine voice in a host of different roles, from scrapping Streltsy to resigned Old Believers going to a mass self-inflicted martyrdom. Not surprisingly they got a huge ovation when the curtain fell on the striking image of them climbing ecstatically as the smoke billowed. One hopes the short-sighted ENO management will think again.

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