dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
A battle for power
Modest Mussorgsky's opera set in Tsarist Russia is epic in many ways. Spread over five acts lasting more than three-and-a-half hours, it takes the audience into the complex world of Russian politics and intrigue.
Based on a true event known as The Khovansky Affair, but with a good deal of artistic licence, the opera focuses on the time before the ascent of the tsar Peter the Great. At this point, Peter is still a child, and a younger brother at that, with his mother Sofia the regent. Into that vacuum of power have stepped a host of characters all jockeying for power.
Performed by Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre, Khovanshchina largely focuses on the fates of three powerful men in these turbulent times. There's Khovansky himself, a ruthless and evil man who heads up the dreaded Streltsy, a violent and greatly feared force. Robert Hayward's Khovansky has a touch of the Richard III about him as his deformed body reflects his corrupted mind. This is a man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
Then there's Golitsyn, whose superficial refinement is underlain by an equal desire for power and riches. We first see Golitsyn (Mark Le Brocq) contemplating an abstract painting and at our last view he is reading a book as he is carried into exile, but in between, we are only too aware that his desire for rule is every bit as single-minded as Khovansky's.
In contrast, Dosifei (Miklos Sebestyen) has renounced his position as a secular leader to instead lead a group of religious followers known as the Old Believers. Denounced as heretics by the established church, the Old Believers put their faith in God but in a society riven by strife, their existence cannot be tolerated by the powers that be.
Into the mix add Marfa (Sara Fulgoni) an Old Believer who has been the love of Khovansky's son Andrei (Adrian Dwyer), and Emma (Claire Wild), a Lutheran captured by the Khovansky forces who Andrei is now desperate to possess and the plot becomes peppered with tragedies waiting to happen.
Directed by WNO artistic director David Pountney and designed by Johan Engels, the story is pulled into the present day. The set looks like a ruined council chamber with huge silhouettes of broken buildings and everything slightly tilted. Reflecting the politics which are also shifting and destructive, the set also features a giant ball which sinks to the ground as the body count rises. Marie-Jeanne Lecca's costumes are also largely modern with each of the factions clearly dressed in a different colour.
There is a lot happening in Khovanshchina and at times it feels like this production has run away with itself in an attempt to keep the audience captivated. For example, the killing of Khovansky in a bath while a naked Persian dancer cavorts nearby may offer plenty of scope for lots of running red water and a layer of eroticism but it is a bit incongruous in the setting.
The somewhat murky world of the opera became every murkier in Act Three when the surtitles translating the libretto from Russian into English stopped working at the production I was watching, leaving those of us without a detailed knowledge of the opera or Russian with a concept of the action but not the dialogue. This was a temporary hitch repaired by Act Four.
But this is an ambitious attempt at an opera which isn't the easiest to produce. Its final scene in which the Old Believers die on their self-made funeral pyre is both moving and beautiful as the characters sink slowly to the ground while singing Mussorgsky's haunting music.
Mussorgsky is the master of Russian chorus and under the baton of conductor Tomas Hanus, the WNO orchestra rises to the occasion leaving us in no doubt of the reasons this piece should be revived more often.
WNO perform a Russian season featuring Khovanshchina, From the House of the Dead and Eugene Onegin alongside Die Fledermaus at Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday 4 November. See www.birminghamhippodrome.com for more details. For more details of WNO's UK tour see www.wno.org.uk