WNO Khovanshchina

So, as promised, yesterday evening I took a stroll down to Cardiff Bay for the opening night of this run of Welsh National Opera’s production of Kovasnshchina. The walk proved a bit more eventful than anticipated because I blundered into the middle of some sort of police operation involving the pursuit of a suspect but I made it to the Wales Millennium Centre on time and relatively unruffled.

Khovanshchina (which roughly translates as `The Khovansky Affair’ or `The Khovansky Episode’) is based on historical events that took place in Moscow in the 1682. Prince Khovansky, at the head of his private army (the Strelsty) leads a rebellion against the government represented by Sofia, who is regent on behalf of her young brother Ivan and his half-brother Peter (destined to become Peter the Great) who has, with assistance from her lover Prince Golitsyn, restricted the power of the the Boyars (aristocracy). These rebels form an uneasy alliance with The Old Believers, who are opposed to religious reforms introduced by the Patriarch Nikon. The rebellion is crushed by Peter’s army. Khovansky is murdered, but the Streltsy, having been lined up to be executed, are spared by the young Tsar. Golitsyn is forced into exile. The Old Believers, on the other hand, convinced that the failure of the uprising means that the devil is taking over the world, opt for mass suicide.

Mussorgsky was inspired to write this Opera by the bicentenary of the birth of Peter the Great (who was born in 1672). He worked on it, off and on, composing the music and writing the libretto, from 1872 until his death in 1881 and which point it still wasn’t finished. His friend Nikllai Rimsky-Korsakov subsequently completed the work, and it is his version that is most frequently performed. This production, however, uses a different version, completed in 1959 by Dmitri Shostakovich and with the addition of the final scene – the immolation of the Old Believers – the music for which was composed by Igor Stravinsky. The compositional history of this piece is almost as complex as the historical events it depicts.

At a very basic level the message of Khovanshchina is “look how terrible everything was before Peter the Great”. None of the protagonists is a remotely sympathetic character, especially Khovansky himself who is an extremely unpleasant individual, as is his son, whom we first meet trying to force his attentions on a young German girl. Khovansky Senior arrives on the scene to stop him assaulting the girl, but only because he wants her for himself. They’re all charm, these Khovanskys.

Golitsyn seems at first like a good guy, but when a fortune teller forecasts doom and gloom he casually orders her to be murdered. The Old Believers just seem to be a group of religious maniacs. Peter the Great never actually appears on stage and neither does Sofia, a deliberate ploy to focus our attention on the undesirables in front of us. The story that unfolds is one full of horror and brutality, while hope waits in the wings, perhaps never to arrive.

This particular episode also serves to highlight the themes that recur elsewhere in Russian history, and indeed the history of any country that has a history, namely the conflicts between reason and superstition, between rich and poor, between East and West and, well, between War and Peace…

David Pountney’s design for  this production isn’t specific to the 17th century. The striking set, with its curious juxtaposition of abstract geometrical forms, owes much to the constructivist art that informed the iconography of the early Soviet era. Other elements of the design, such as the costumes of the serfs (grey) and the Old Believers (white), are more traditional. The Streltsy wear uniforms that look 20th century, but are a bright pink. This colour-coding is helpful, actually, given the complexities of the plot, and the fact that the stage is frequently crowded. The final apocalyptic suicide scene is not an immolation, but death by poison gas, administered by a steampunk contraption that descends from above the stage. These, and other devices, shift attention away from the specifics and emphasize the thematic universality of the piece.

Spread over five acts, and lasting about 3½ hours (including one interval), Khovanshchina is quite a long Opera but it doesn’t get bogged down because so much is happening musically, dramatically and visually.  It may not be the most comfortable viewing, but it’s a gripping story compelling realised. I certainly never felt bored, though I do wish I’d read a little more about the story beforehand as I got a bit confused in places.

With the exception of a few iffy moments by the French horns, the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Tomáš Hanus played excceedingly well, adding a sense of danger to the opening prelude that set the tone wonderfully. A special mention must be made of the Chorus of Welsh National Opera who were absolutely magnificent, showing off some of the sublime choral writing in this opera as well as provide lots of energy and colour to the crowd scenes.  It isn’t really fair to single out any of the principals, as this is really an ensemble piece, but I thought Robert Hayward was absolutely compelling.

There are two more performances in Cardiff but this piece goes on tour. Do go and see it if you can. It’s an enthralling experience.

 

2 Responses to “WNO Khovanshchina”

  1. John Peacock Says:

    Thanks for the thorough review. I bought a full recording of this opera a couple of years back because I heard the prelude and thought it was just wonderful. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the subsequent several hours of music, but I was a little sad to find that none of it really seemed to have the same character as that marvellous opening.

    • That’s a fair point. The prelude is lovely, but does have different feel from the rest of the opera. I’d be interested to know whether the version you bought was the more usual Rimsky-Korsakov completion or some other one. I gather Ravel also wrote a version. Of the version we heard I thought the choral sections were the most interesting, after the Prelude, but the Dance of the Persian Slave is very memorable.

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