Magazine article The Spectator

Brutalising Russia

Magazine article The Spectator

Brutalising Russia

Article excerpt

Khovanshchina, Carmen WNO, Birmingham Koanga Sadler's Wells

I caught up with Welsh National Opera's production of Musorgsky's Khovanshchina only in Birmingham, the last performance of its first run. I hope it's revived soon, since an account of it as intense as the one I saw, without longueurs, is just what this work needs to lift it from the status of masterpiece-but-alsobore to simply that of masterpiece. It is done in Shostakovich's orchestration, and with Stravinsky's setting of the final chorus for the Old Believers (or call them Fundamentalists to get them in perspective). With David Pountney as director, one expects the action to be updated, and the sets, variants on a single collection of intimidating props, suggest 1920s architecture and painting. I suppose we must concede to Pountney that, if he wholly lacks an historical sense, which all his work suggests that he does, it's better that he should present his understanding of a work as set in a recent period which he can grasp. The huge opera is done in English, no surtitles, so that some of the more outrageous discrepancies between what the characters are saying and the time in which they are saying them are inaudible, though since Pountney thinks that 'it must be the most vividly imagined example in opera of a political debate' (he contrasts Don Carlos and 'anything in Wagner' unfavourably with it) it would be nice if we could grasp more of the nuances; unless one is a Musorgsky scholar, all one can hope to do is catch the general drift.

What we lose in detail we gain in overall effect, certainly under the electrifying baton of Anthony Negus, who was allowed the last performance, as usual. The orchestra was on stunning form, delicate and sensuous in the spellbinding prelude, ferocious and fearless in attack in the large quantities of violent music, and tireless. So were the chorus, who have a huge part in Khovanshchina, and who are always present even if not singing. Their brutality as the private army of Khovansky was as convincing as their frequent laments about the eternally dreadful state of Russia, and as their final immolation (here death in a gas chamber). I don't know how different Negus's account was from Lothar Koenigs's, who conducted all the previous performances, but he was so intent on keeping a high rhythmic profile that the music always seemed to be moving fairly fast, whereas it has usually seemed to be moving very slowly.

With one exception, a crucial one, the cast was strong. …

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