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Photo by Petrovsky & Ramone
29 Feb 2016

Khovanshchina at Dutch National Opera convinces musically, less so theatrically

Dutch National Opera’s Khovanshchina’s finest asset was Anita Rachvelishvili’s vocally ravishing Marfa. The darkly opalescent Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra came in a close second.

Khovanshchina at Dutch National Opera convinces musically, less so theatrically

A review by Jenny Camilleri

Above photo by Petrovsky & Ramone


Modest Mussorgsky’s byzantine Khovanshchina fictionalises historical power struggles from which Tsar Peter, later the Great, emerges as the victor. Its plot, a series of episodic scenes, centres around Prince Ivan Khovansky’s attempt to topple the Romanovs and put his son Andrey on the throne. His muscle are the Streltsy, elite guardsmen who have degenerated into a drunken, plundering menace. The Khovanskys oppose the progressive movement, represented by Prince Vasily Golitsin, who supports Peter’s reforms towards a Westernised Russia. As leader of the Old Believers, the enigmatic Dosifey also opposes religious and political reform, but abhors the Streltsy’s excesses. Inhabiting an ambiguous moral landscape, these characters’ motivations are often clouded, making them both intriguing and difficult to fathom.

Director Christof Loy’s production opens with a tableau vivant of a painting by Vasily Surikov called the Morning of the Streltsy’s Execution (1881), which depicts Peter’s barbaric annihilation of the insurgent militia, an event that occurred outside the opera’s time frame. Saturated in golden light, as in the original, the figures in the painting doff their historical costumes and become our contemporaries. The golden light ebbs away and returns only when the painting is pieced together again at the end. The concept lucidly connects the 17th century to our time, but relies heavily on strong singing actors. Once the painting dissolves, the sets consist of starkly lit monochrome walls, and three hours is a long time to be looking at vacant walls.

khovanshchina_401.pngAnita Rachvelishvili (Marfa), Maxim Aksenov (Vorst Andrej Chovanski), Koor van De Nationale Opera [Photo by Monika Rittershaus]

Burdened with sustaining dramatic interest, not all the singers met the challenge. It was the insistent surge in the orchestra, who poured out delicate and mysterious tinctures, which unfailingly kept up the tension. Conductor Ingo Metzmacher beautifully captured both the heady Eastern perfume and the groundswell of ancient tides in Dmitri Shostakovich’s orchestration of the score, which Mussorgsky left unfinished. A reinforced brass section provided excellent military display. In the stupendous choral scenes, the Dutch National Chorus was on its best form when mixed. All-male numbers lacked a Slavic full-toned bass and the women’s chorus entertaining Khovansky was marred by strident top notes. In their best scenes, however, most notably as the Old Believers, the chorus matched the orchestra in highly evocative soundscapes.

Transplanting the action to the present worked only partially. Khovansky’s harem as a nightclub, where underage sex slaves are coerced into a clumsy Dance of the Persian Slaves, was compellingly disturbing. On the other hand, a group of supposedly illiterate office workers bullying a Scribe, portrayed with avid self-importance and reedy tenor by Andrey Popov, into reading them a notice board, is the kind of incongruence that causes a mental short circuit. Some symbols remained unclear, maybe on purpose. Did the pigtailed little girl instrumental in Khovansky’s assassination personify Russia’s innocence?

The cast was more satisfying than the staging. Well-sung supporting roles included the orotund-voiced, boisterous soldiers of Vitali Roznyko and Sulkhan Jaiani. Acting credibly as the drunken Strelets Kuzka, Vasily Efimov wielded a puzzling tenor, with a breathless, small middle range and brawny loud notes. Bass Dimitry Ivashchenko, announced as suffering from a cold, sang Ivan Khovansky full-bodiedly and securely, but needed to tread carefully, sacrificing a degree of expression. As his son Andrey, tenor Maxim Aksenov started out with faltering pitch, but improved later on. Orlin Anastassov gave a frustrating performance as the sect leader Dosifey. His luxurious bass fitted the role like a glove, but he alternated splendid singing and vivid moments with gurgled vocalism and monotony. In the end, his Dosifey lacked the dark charisma that would persuade his disciples to commit mass suicide.

Bass Gábor Bretz’s first appearance as the pro-Romanov nobleman Shaklovity was vocally prepossessing but rather featureless. Fortunately, he caught dramatic fire in his great aria bemoaning Russia’s suffering. The other incendiary performances came from tenor Kurt Streit as the agitated Golitsin, his bleached high notes registering rising panic, and the three women. Svetlana Ignatovich left a radiant impression in the short role of Emma. Some shrillness in her high notes suited the character, who was being set upon by the lecherous Andrey. Olga Savova was equally arresting as the judgmental Susanna. Her confrontation with fellow Old Believer Marfa was a theatrical peak. In fact, every scene with Anita Rachvelishvili in it set off the dramatic seismograph. Her fascinating Marfa was complex in voice and action, and completely mesmerising, longing for Andrey in gorgeous mezza voce, and terrifying Golitsin in her quaking fortune-telling scene. With her voluptuous contralto base from which her voice curls smokily up the scale, Ms Rachvelishvili was born to sing this role. Whether she stood in front of a black or white wall, when she sang the whole stage was aswirl with colour.

Jenny Camilleri

Cast and production information:

Prince Ivan Khovansky— Dimitry Ivashchenko, Prince Andrey Khovansky — Maxim Aksenov, Prince Vasily Golitsin — Kurt Streit, Boyar Fyodor Shaklovity — Gábor Bretz, Dosifey — Orlin Anastassov, Marfa — Anita Rachvelishvili, Emma — Svetlana Ignatovich, Susanna — Olga Savova, Scribe — Andrey Popov , Kuzka — Vasily Efimov, Varsonofiev — Roger Smeets, Streshnev — Morschi Franz, First Strelets — Vitali Roznyko, Second Strelets — Sulkhan Jaiani, Prince Golitsin’s Servant — Richard Prada, Principal Dancer — Gyorgy Puchalski, Conductor — Ingo Metzmacher, Director — Christof Loy, Set Designer — Johannes Leiacker, Costume Designer — Ursula Renzenbrink, Lighting Designer — Reinhard Traub, Choreographer — Thomas Wilhelm, Dramaturge — Katja Hagedorn, ­Dutch National Opera Choir, New Amsterdam Children’s Choir, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra. Seen at Dutch National Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam, Saturday, 27th February 2016.

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