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Rosalind Plowright as Marfa
22 Feb 2007

MUSSORGSKY: Khovanshchina

At the curtain call for the first night of WNO’s new production of the infrequently performed Khovanshchina director David Pountney wore a simple Russian shirt.

Above: Rosalind Plowright as Marfa

 

This was one of the few references in this sprawling production that was immediately recognizable. Maybe he wore the shirt for a bet. To see what he could get away with on stage. Maybe he staged the entire production with the same thought.

Of course he did not. But had he, the audience would have had one reason for their polite (and I stress polite) applause at the end what I can only say was one of the most incomprehensible productions I can remember. It even gave Pountney’s space station Dutchman a run for its money. WNO audiences are very polite and at times you rather wish they would make their views clearer in curtain calls than the mutterings and mumblings you hear on the way out.

Khovanshchina was never going to be a laugh a minute night out. And those who bought their tickets to hear the wonderful music of Musorsgsky, as orchestrated after his death by Shostakovich, will have been amongst those not disappointed.

Under the baton of Lothar Koenigs the music to those of us not very familiar with the work was a revelation, always beautiful and evocative, at times lyrical and tuneful, at others Wagnerian and haunting.

The same must be said of the chorus of Welsh National Opera who, stalwarts as they are, put up with whatever was thrown at them in this potpourri of historical, architectural and cultural references crammed into one production with stoic aplomb. 

Someone, somewhere, decided this opera would be sung in English. This would have been fine had it been possible to make out more than about one in a hundred words. There were whole arias — and by no means little ditties — where I could not fathom a single word. It sounded quite nice, in a moody Russian sort of way, and was no doubt deeply significant.

I have never been a fan of surtitles. But after a few minutes of struggling to make out a word of what was being sung I was all at sea, struggling to hear singers, follow the dastardly plot and file yet another Pountney visual reference in my cerebral inbox for future analysis.

Even with the show sung in English, we should have had Welsh surtitles. My Welsh is pretty basic but I would have more of a chance of understanding the Welsh than what I could hear from the stage.

At the interval it quickly became clear I was not alone. “Can anyone tell me what is going on, can you make out what they are singing and what is the point of the production?” was the main thrust of interval discussions I overheard. The responses were along the lines: “Haven’t a clue, can’t make much of the words and I stopped trying to understand it ages ago”.

This, of course, is a great pity. This is indeed a powerful and musically gorgeous work that deserves to be enjoyed. Possibly in a year or so the opera can be revived with surtitles or as a straight concert performance.

Admittedly the plot is so complex and the piece so gloomy it is better to regard it as an evocation of Russia and themes religious, political and emotional, rather than a literal tale.

It is about power struggles in the time of Peter the Great between rivals and a spiritual leader with individual views on the future of Mother Russia. By the end they have all been ground down in one dreadful way or another and we are left with yet another image of troubled Russia, its struggles between East and West, modernism and tradition, a people invaded, plundered and constantly in search of a solution.

There really is little point going through the legions of symbolism Pountney and designer Johan Engels wade through with as much subtlety and progress as a German Panzer, low on fuel and stuck in the mud in the Russian winter of 1941. There are undoubtedly scenes of intensity and sheer horror that are visually gripping and chilling. Yet, as a package, the whole is too abstract production led.

Yes, the cast worked extremely hard and Peter Sidhom, singing Shaklovity, made an impact. Robert Hayward and Tom Randle as Prince Ivan Khovansky and Prince Andrei Khovansky had presence and Rosalind Plowright generally coped admirably with the demands of singing Marfa.

The audience managed miraculously to stop coughing during Beate Vollack’s erotic, at times seemingly naked, dance as the Persian Slave. A bit of light relief if nothing else.

There is a further performance at WMC on Saturday, February 14 and the Grand Theatre, Swansea on April 7.

Mike Smith

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