Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Khovanshchina: Kirov Opera @ Royal Opera House, London

3, 5 August 2005

Royal Opera House

Royal Opera House (Photo: Luke Hayes/Royal Opera House)

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 much 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 best.

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 Nikolaĭ 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 theatrical standards.

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Khovanshchina: Kirov Opera @ Royal Opera House, London