Khovanshchina, Welsh National Opera, WNO, Cardiff, September 2017

This great opera portrays late seventeenth century events in Russia before Peter the Great came to power. Musorgsky, who wrote his own libretto, invents some love interest, notably in the character of Marfa, though the true historical background and exigencies of getting operas to stage are well described in the excellent programme essays, which also express the deep well of influence that history exerts on contemporary Russia.

All images WNO/ Clive Barda

In a series of extraordinary tableaux the varied characters bring to life the Khovansky plot, from which the opera draws its title, and the depth of feeling among the Old Believers who rejected Peter the Great’s ecclesiastical reforms. Peter himself and his half-sister the Tsarevna and regent do not appear as no Romanov could not be portrayed on stage, but the oblique angles of Johan Engels’ huge designs speaks to the powers of reaction and reform preceding Russia’s eighteenth century path to European nationhood, so well expressed by the characters, chorus and music.

Marfa and Dosifei

From the orchestra pit, WNO’s music director Tomáš Hanus gave a marvellous sense of space to Musorgsky’s music, drawing magnificent power from the chorus and excellent singing from the huge cast led by Robert Hayward as Prince Ivan Khovansky head of the Streltsy Militia, with Adrian Dwyer as his son Andrei portraying a thoroughly nasty personality, and Mark Le Brocq a noble Prince Golitsyn showing gentle emotion as he reads the Tsarevna’s letter at he start of Act II and troubled understanding in his subsequent soliloquy on the plight of Russia.

His portrayal contrasted well with the aggressive vocal strength of Simon Bailey as Shaklovity, the calm determination and commanding presence of Miklós Sebestyén as Dosifei leader of the Old Believers, and the sinuous voice of Sara Fulgoni showing excellent vocal quality over a wide range of registers. Fine work from other soloists, notably Adrian Thompson as a very strong scribe, who is clearly on the money and cheerfully walks off with an ample purse.

Ivan Khovansky and Persian slave

Excellent lighting by Fabrice Kebour, and a beautifully erotic and dramatic performance by dancer and choreographer Beate Vollack as the Persian slave. Her remarkable appearance on the slowly rolling globe, naked except for a vast red cloth, was a theatrical treat, and the waving of a red flag in the same act was a reminder of an iconic image from Soviet times. The imagery of David Pountney’s bold production draws such comparisons while bringing out Musorgsky’s skilful juxtaposition of historical events to create a musical tour de force of immense power.

The half-minute silence in the darkness of the theatre after the final bars of music says it all. Magnificent.

Performances continue in Cardiff on Sept 30 and Oct 7, in Llandudno on Oct 24, and Birmingham on Oct 31— for details click here.

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