Khovanshchina, BBC Prom 29, Royal Albert Hall, RAH, August 2017Posted on 7 August 2017
As an old opera buff once told me, anyone confused by the story line in Khovanshchina should simply treat it as a series of tableaux — wise advice since Mussorgsky telescoped the history of three different uprisings onto a massive musical canvas painted with emotional confrontations, religious fundamentalism, human ambition and a struggle for the soul of Russia. It starts with dawn breaking over Moscow in 1682, and ends in 1698 with public executions of the Streltsy militia, and the immolation of a group of Old Believers (a Christian Orthodox sect that refused to accept reforms made by the Russian patriarch earlier that century).
The historical background is that when the Duma chose the young Peter (later the Great) as Tsar in 1682 he was barely ten years old, so his mother the Tsarevna Sophia acted as regent. Neither she nor Peter appear in the opera, but the large cast includes her (ex)-lover Golitsyn, leading members of the Old Believers (Dosifey and Marfa) and the Streltsy (headed by Ivan Khovansky — whose name yields the opera’s title, the Khovansky Affair — and his son Andrey). Numerous other characters, along with massed voices of the people, the Streltsy, the Old Believers, and Peasant Girls, makes this a huge undertaking for which the BBC Singers were joined by the Schola Cantorum of The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and even the Slovak Philharmonic Choir. Coordinating this massive array of forces, along with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, was the excellent baton of Semyon Bychkov, who gave a gripping account of Mussorgsky’s score in Shostakovich’s orchestration, and at the end of Act 4 as the Streltsy walk to their execution the chorus came through like waves crashing on the shore.
Superb singing from principals and soloists, with Estonian bass Ain Anger projecting god-like authority as Dosifey, and Elena Maximova in the low mezzo role of Marfa giving huge depth to this multi-faceted woman, who brings out key emotional aspects of the opera, telling Golitsyn (Russian tenor Vsevolod Grivnov) his fortune in Act 2, and struggling for the rest of the opera with her now-unrequited love for Andrey, sung with plaintive lyricism by Christopher Ventris. At the end of Act 4 she agrees to hide him and emerging from deep sadness in Act 5 she exhibits magical passion as she urges him to cleanse their love in the fire, while he still bleats of his unrequited Act 1 passion for the young Lutheran girl Emma (Armenian soprano Anush Hovhannisyan in a fine Proms debut). The political menace of the Streltsy was strongly embodied by the singing and dramatic portrayal of Croatian bass Ante Jerkunica as their leader Ivan Khovansky, with other roles very well sung, notably: the boyar Shaklovity (George Gagnidze), the Strelets Kuzka (Colin Judson) and the Scribe (Norbert Ernst).
A magnificent concert performance, with helpful surtitles and occasional staging effects that featured flickering red lights high up in the hall for the final immolation.
Compressing nearly twenty years during the early reign of Peter the Great, the major tableaux of Mussorgsky’ opera provide a marvellous window onto a vital period of Russian history, and this autumn Welsh National Opera will revive their staged version, with a different cast conducted by music director Tomáš Hanus.