WNO – Khovanshchina (The Khovansky Affair)
Wales Millennium Centre
Saturday 30th September 2017
Comrades unite! It’s almost 100 years since the Russian Revolution cracked open the country. Its impact on the world has never been disputed: whilst today we feel that one brutal dictatorship replaced another, the artistic legacy of the motherland should not be underestimated. This event is just one example of many.
Most Cardiff based institutions are in on this Russian game: BBC NOW with Shostakovich 12, Sherman with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and even National Dance Company of Wales with their new take on Satie’s ballet Parade. It’s Russian mania!
Welsh National Opera have began with an ambitious work which is not for the faint hearted. The name alone would be enough to put some people off (a translation of the title would be The Khovansky Affair). Lovers of Russian opera would have most likely preferred Mussorgsky’s masterpiece Boris Godunov, yet that work has had a complicated history of completions. Due to the composer’s love of the bottle, he didn’t finish all his compositions and after his death there were orchestrations of this opera by a few composers, but the most faithful is that of Shostakovich. It’s also become tradition to keep in the additional final scene by Stravinsky of the Immolation Scene, or the burning of the Christians.
I’ll confess, this is a tough nut to crack (lasting almost 4 hours), even with Mussorgsky’s fantastical musical world and the vibrant orchestration of Shostakovich. The problem lies in our affection to the characters. We don’t know who we are supposed to root for and therefore have no connection with these historical stage figures. It’s all a bit of a whirlwind, as conjecture seems to predominate the opera. Yet, Peter the Great looms over the story as the successor to all events seen here with his mighty campaigns.
In this revival from 2007, director David Pountney gives this 17th century history lesson a Soviet twist à la a century ago. It’s a standard contemporary idea at the story. After all, when else would you set this in Russia’s history? The staging is a huge, sculptural grey arena, like a sort of Modernist, Soviet extremity which ties in well with the period, yet limits the stage to limited amount of space.
The orchestra were sensational here. A true hotbed of Russian chants, stellar in the brass for true dramatic power with the addition of gongs, bells, harp and other delights. Shostakovich has done his peer proud with an orchestration which is honest to the original source material. The chorus peppers the dramatic moments with pangs of relentless drama and mood. The lead singers also having much clout in the demanding roles.
Robert Hayward is Prince Ivan Khovansky, a sort of half fascist leader, half Richard III. he packs a punch in the role and deals with the disability of the character with understanding. His son Prince Andrei is the excellent Adrian Dwyer, first seen in kinky dungarees manhandling poor Emma (played by an intense Claire Wild), in a brief yet telling role. Mark Le Brocq is Prince Vasily Gotitsyn, a half interesting role which seems to annoy the other Princes. He looks the part in a golden long coat and has that super tenor sound we have heard from him several times at WNO.
Miklós Sebestyen is Dosifei, the spiritual leader of a large flock who decide to end their lives in flames. The voice is striking in its tone and makes for great theatre every time he is on stage. Marfa here is tackled by Sara Fulgoni. In a part not unlike Kundry in Parsifal, it’s vampish and is sexually charged with undertones. Fulgoni makes the role her own and whenever on stage is hard to take your eyes off her.
In brief moments of humour was the Scribe, here played by Adrian Thompson. Like a shady, nervous clod who is only every worried about his own back, his elevation to read a note on a pillar is one of the great moments of the show and is also very funny. Dancer Elena Thomas as the Persian Slave is a great addition to the show. This brief time with her is witnessed by us and also Ivan who arouses himself in a bath tub whilst she whips her hair, dances nude on a giant wrecking ball and drapes the red flag around her body in moments of hair raising erotica.
This is an intense show, although in need of a good trimming. Whilst the effort put in should not be undervalued, it’s at times mostly overkill.
Intense & rousing, if laborious.
WNO continue their Russia! Culture! Revolution! season at WMC with further performances of Khovanshchina, Eugene Onegin & From the House of the Dead, then on tour.
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