Pushkin, Grange Park Opera, GPO, July 2018

Wow! This was the best thing so far this summer, and the audience acknowledged so with a standing ovation. Well deserved indeed, for it does what opera is supposed to do — engage the audience in an emotional experience rather than an intellectual exercise, which however cleverly contrived does not make one want to rush back for a second dose. This did.

All images GPO/ Richard Lewisohn

The composer Konstantin Boyarsky, originally from the north Caucasus, is currently a principal violist with the Royal Opera House, and his music combines quintessentially modern harmonies with the emotional qualities of modern musical theatre such as Les Miserables  while drawing on the rich Russian tradition. For example when the gypsy predicts Pushkin’s death at 37 we hear it as 3 … 7 … 37, recalling the 3 … 7 … ace in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. The libretto is by UK-born Marita Phillips, a great-great-great granddaughter of both Pushkin and Tsar Nicholas I, whose expansionist and repressive rule led to the ‘Great Game’ against Britain in Central Asia, and the Crimean War.

Tsar Nicholas wrapped in a map of his expanding territories

The brilliant libretto brings out how the Tsar wanted Pushkin as a national poet, but genius is not to be commanded and Pushkin was true to his own muse and his own demons. When the poet dies and everyone weeps, we hear the Tsar asking, “Why are they weeping? I gave no order to weep”, reminding me of King Herod in Richard Strauss’s Salome  when he learns of the death of Narraboth, a minor character who dies of despair, as did Pushkin in fighting a duel. The gypsy responds to the Tsar that we weep for ourselves, but hate you, “You will be remembered only as the Tsar who lived in the time of Pushkin”.

Natalya and Pushkin

In Act I she has already warned Pushkin of the ‘white wolf’, who turns out to be D’Anthès, adopted son of the Dutch Ambassador, Heckeren. He is drawn to Pushkin’s wife Natalya, and tries to get her to run away with him, inspiring the fatal duel. The libretto cleverly weaves in different strands, including the feelings of Natalya’s sisters and the passion felt by Heckeren for his adopted son. That it covers as much as it does in two one-hour acts without losing the audience for a single minute is tribute to the brilliance of the libretto, and excellent quality of the staging by Igor Ushakov with wonderful costumes by Irene Belousova and lighting by Timofey Ermolin that cleverly separates different characters.

D’Anthès and Natalya

This performance, using a combination of both Russian and English, is by Novaya Opera and its magnificent chorus, along with Russian principals in all roles except for Peter Auty as Pushkin. He was terrific, as were Julietta Avanesyan  as a delightful Natalyai, Irina Romishevskaya and Anna Sinitsyna as her elder sisters Catherine and Alexandrine, with Artyom Garnov as a firm and unyielding Tsar, Yaroslav Abaimov and Anton Bochkaryov in the passionate roles of Heckeren and D’Anthès, and Gayane Babadzhanyan as a wonderfully appealing gypsy. Conducting by Jan Latham-Koenig fully brought out the emotional power of the music, and though some audience members entered the auditorium for Act II concerned about the progress of England’s world cup semi-final, such worries vanished into thin air as the compelling force of the drama took hold.

After the curtain finally came down for the last time a great cheer went up from the cast on stage. Russia may be out of the world cup (and so now are England), but this was a huge Russian success in the English countryside. Cпасибо Новая Опера.

The second of two performances takes place on July 12 — for details click here.

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