Magazine article The Spectator

Power Play

Magazine article The Spectator

Power Play

Article excerpt

Auden once suggested to Stravinsky a category of anti-opera, of which Pelleas, From the House of the Dead and Boris would be defining members. Surely he would have done still better to choose Khovanshchina, which is defiantly lacking in every traditional ingredient of the genre, at any rate until Act IV, scene one, when Musorgsky produces a dance for Persian slaves. It is the only trite part of the opera, and disconcertingly one of only two scenes that Musorgsky orchestrated. The rest of the work is ruggedly argumentative, with Suffering Mother Russia as the pervasive theme. The chief characters, almost all unsympathetic, seem implausible for politicians only in the degree of their concern not only for personal aggrandisement but also for their country. The comprehensiveness of their rancour, their preparedness to stab anyone in the back, literally, and the confused way in which they present their positions all make for slow but compulsive watching and listening. So revolutionary is Musorgsky's work here - in a different league from Boris, though that remains by far the more moving work - that it is hard to think of any opera since which has risked so much in the way of unalluringness. Somehow, despite the clumsiness of the dramaturgy, the composer-librettist manages to connect the public and private so that we rarely bog down in the minutiae of the characters' power play. Their incapacity to maintain a perspective which Musorgsky himself achieves and enables us to share is part of the work's fascination.

Because it is so radical a conception, the extremely conservative nature of the Kirov's production jars as it doesn't in Mazeppa, which is itself so traditional an opera. Khovanshchina invites bold direction, whereas what we get is more of the stand-and-deliver style of acting which seems to be the only one that Russians can conceive. The crowd, painted in such sharply realistic colours in its stupidity and credulousness, shouldn't be made or allowed to behave with such operatic conventionality, with the members of the splendid chorus turning to one another and shaking their heads as if they are astonished to be told that Russia has fallen on hard times. Nor should the individual actors get away with merely singing over the footlights. Even so, the passion with which they sing, the projection of their personalities, is so powerful that critique soon retreats and the satisfaction, so uncommon nowadays, of seeing a great team working to great ends is enormous. I saw the second cast, but I doubt whether, all told, it makes much difference, much as I would have loved to hear Larissa Diadkova's Marfa (but that is only in the third cast). …

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