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<em>Khovanshchina</em>, Prom 29
07 Aug 2017

Khovanshchina: Mussorgsky at the Proms

Remembering the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this Proms performance of Mussorgsky’s mighty Khovanshchina (all four and a quarter hours of it) exceeded all expectations on a musical level. And, while the trademark doorstop Proms opera programme duly arrived containing full text and translation, one should celebrate the fact that - finally - we had surtitles on several screens.

Khovanshchina, Prom 29

A review by Colin Clarke

Elena Maximova (Marfa)

Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou


The problem here was that the translation used for the surtitles was most assuredly not that in the programme, which could conceivably lead to confusion. It certainly added an extra layer of interest, albeit an unnecessary one.

Perhaps describing this performance as “semi-staged” is pushing it. There was some lighting for the culminatory pyre skittering across the RAH’s ceiling and elsewhere, although it was as a gesture rather underwhelming (the ending is a cross between the closing moments of Götterdämmerung and Dialogues des Carmelites). George Gagnidze’s sparkly bowtie was frankly more memorable than the light show. And yet, the performance itself was magnificent, guided impeccably by Semyon Bychkov, who previously led a Khovanshcina at the Vienna State Opera in 2014. The score operates across a huge canvas. Requiring large chorus (the BBC Singers here cannily augmented by the Slovak Philharmonic Choir, darkening the sound), equally large orchestra and a great long list of soloists, Mussorgsky’s epic pulls no punches. The same is true emotionally, as the political events unfold (the Streltsy revolts led by Ivan Khovansky, religious conservatism in the shape of the Old Believers, events around the beginning of Tsar Peter I’s reign). The characters Dosifey - Ain Anger sporting a prominent cross - and Marfa - who had previous romantic links to Koslovsky sung by the astonishing Elena Maximova - represent the old ways. In his excellent programme note, Simon Morrison of Princeton University suggests that Marfa is the character that reflects Mussorgsky’s own beliefs the best - and as such, she has some of the finest music.

Mussorgsky’s characteristically earthy writing (some might say unsophisticated) is there openly and unapologetically in this score, linking aurally to the original version of Boris Godunov and the piano original of Pictures. As with Boris (done at last year’s Proms under Pappano), also, the chorus is a palpable protagonist, no mere commentator. All credit to the multiple choirs on this occasion for providing such a powerful experience. Both Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky offered solutions to Mussorgsky’s incomplete score (and indeed orchestration), but on this occasion it was the Shostakovich 1959 edition that was used.

Bychkov can be a variable conductor, but on this occasion he was on (pardon the pun, given the opera’s conclusion) blazing form. The choruses followed him impeccably; he paced the action and the individual lines so once could clearly here not only the words but also that the words flowed at a believable speed of delivery. His way with the opening “Dawn on the Moscow River” (the most excerpted part of the score) was radiant and loving. Thank goodness Khovanshchina is no Pearl Fishers, wherein everyone knows the big duet near the opening and the score becomes ever more variable from that point. Mussorgsky’s opera, while not at white heat of inspiration throughout, is an incredibly impressive animal. The way the momentum just stopped dead at the entry of the Musocvites in Act I was remarkable, for example (as was the way no-one could miss the folkish tinge to the Musicovites’ melodies later). The suddenly radiant textures in the final act, when Marfa nostalgically refers to the love previously shared between herself and Khohvansky, was another such moment of revelation, stunningly done by Bychkov and his forces.

Choral contributions, whether of revolt or prayer, were always perfectly judged; just occasionally, perhaps, the higher voices struggled with some of Mussorgsky’s demands.

The singers assembled for this performance, too, were generally of the highest calibre. As Prince Ivan Khovansky, the Croatian Ante Jerkinica’s deep voice meant that even high in his register the sound was burnished; he exuded confidence and command. His son in the opera, Prince Andrey Khovansky, was taken by Heldentenor Christopher Ventris, known to many through his Parsifal and Lohengrin. Not quite given that opportunity to shine on this occasion, he remains a strong character and, indeed, voice; his sound perfectly complemented that of the Emma when the two were juxtaposed, that role taken by the excellent, fresh Anush Hovhannisyan. Georgian George Gagnidze was a dark-voiced Shaklovity in the Russian tradition - his prolonged lamentation for Russia in act three was exceptional.

A dignified and strong Dosifey, Estonian bass Ain Anger reveled in his character’s unshakable faith in Russia’s church. Often, his lines are prefaced by the direction “with mystical emotion” or the suchlike, and so it was in execution; his interactions with Marfa in the third act were one of the evening’s highlights. He reached the heights of his portrayal in the ultra-beautiful and heartfelt moonlit soliloquy that opens the fifth and final act. As Golitsy, Vsevolod Grivnov revealed a beautifully baritonal tenor voice.

In a strong cast, it was the young Elena Maximova’s Marfa that shone brightest of all. A voice of huge resonance in its lower registers, she made each note count. Her stage presence, too, is riveting while her sense of line, particularly in evidence in the second act, revealed the most perfect legato; yet her invocation of “mysterious forces” before she skries the future in a bowl of water held all the depth of a Russian Cunning Woman. When Mussorgsky writes for the upper reaches of her voice (in the fourth act), Maximova revealed a glistening, steely top.

Norbert Ernst was a brilliant, characterful Scribe, whose music sometimes veers very much towards the Fool’s music from Boris. This role requires much stamina, and Ernst never seemed to tire at all. A shame Jennifer Rhys-Davis’ Susanna, one of the Old Believers, was so saturated in vibrato. Smaller roles were uniformly well-taken, Colin Judson as Kuzka making the most of his act three song; a special mention also for Thomas Raskin’s Streshnev, whose few lines were delivered with impeccable diction.

Chorally this was a triumph, the assembled choruses carrying real heft. The Streltsy were a force to be reckoned with, while the Peasant Girls of the fourth act conjured just the right amount of folksy lilt. The orchestra was the best I have heard it for literally years, possibly decades (going back to the era of Günter Wand) - on an individual level. the cor anglais solo in the fourth act “Dance of the Persian Slave Girls” was meltingly done by Alison Teale. This is the moment when Mussorgsky seems to prefigure Rimsky’s Sheherazade.

A superb performance; and to hear the BBC Symphony Orchestra on such form was both a joy and a privilege.

Colin Clarke

Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina (orch. Shostakovich, concert performance sung in Russian)

Ante Jerkunica - Ivan Khovansky, Christopher Ventris - Andrey Khovansky, Vsevolod Grivnov - Golitsin, Elena Maximova - Marfa,Ain Anger - Dosifey, George Gagnidze - Shaklovity, Jennifer Rhys-Davies - Susanna, Norbert Ernst - Scribe, Anush Hovhannisyan - Emma, Colin Judson - Kuzka, Philip Tebb, Charles Gibbs - Soldiers, Jamie W. Hall - Varsonofiev, Christopher Bowen - Servant to Golitsyn, Thomas Raskin - Streshnev; conductor - Semyon Bychkov. Paul Curran - stage director, Peter Weigold - assistant conductor, Alexandra Golubitskaya - repetiteur, Alexandre Naoumenko - Russian coach, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Schola Cantorum of The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, Tiffin Boys’ Choir, BBC Singers, Slovak Philharmonic Choir.

Royal Albert Hall, London; Sunday 6th August 2017.

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