I'd been looking forward to this since the announcement of the Proms programme back in April. Khovanshchina is a work close to my heart, but I hadn't been able to get to Birmingham for the recent performances there, and I knew I wouldn't be able to make any of autumn Welsh National Opera performances. Add to this the fact that Semyon Bychkov was conducting, having demonstrated his credentials for epic opera a number of times at Covent Garden, and on paper this looked unmissable. I wasn't disappointed.
Mussorgsky's opera, left unfinished at his death and completed by a variety of hands – this was (with I gather some variants) the Shostakovich completion – explores the tumultuous state of Russia on the eve of Peter the Great's assumption of power. Various princes – the Khovansky brothers of the title (in command of the Moscow Streltsy or militia), Golitsyn and Dosifey (a former prince who has renounced his rank for religious reasons) jostle for position – but all are bested by the Tsar's agent Shaklovity. It was evident from chat around me in the Arena that not a few found this hard to follow. I don't feel as if I ever have, but I expect I benefited from having seen the magnificent Zambello production at ENO twice and having heard the broadcast before seeing it for the first time which I recall explaining lucidly who everybody was. In particular, it's important to realise that it was illegal to represent the Tsar on stage – hence Shaklovity – but my recollection is the ENO production did a fine job of making one constantly aware of that lurking off-stage presence.
In this Proms semi-staging Paul Curran, probably sensibly doesn't try to do too much. The dramatic impact was helped by the fact that a number of singers were off score (most notably Elena Maximova's Marfa and Ain Anger's Dosifey). There was some slight variation in outfit which somewhat distinguished the men. Other than that it's pretty much stand and deliver. But from three ranks back in the Arena, for me at least, the drama was intense.
This is a tribute to a pretty outstanding set of musical performances. On the podium Semyon Bychkov held the whole together magnificently. I can see, on this re-hearing, that this is a potentially bitty score which in the wrong hands could lose cohesion. Bychkov not only avoided that pitfall but drove the evening electrically forward, while not missing the opportunity to appreciate the moments of lyric beauty and feeling – particularly in several of Marfa's arias. Again, from my vantage point, he also got the balance spot on so that soloists came across the orchestra rather than, as can be a danger in concert opera, getting swamped. The soloists were without exception a strong, in many cases exceptional, line up.
Just taking the honours were Maximova's Marfa and Anger's Dosifey. Maximova conveyed a great deal by facial expression, and switched between ringing fortes and expressive pianos with ease. Every time she was on stage, feet from me, she was riveting to watch. Anger's rich base was very well suited to the role and he sang throughout with gripping power. Ante Jerkunica's Ivan Khovansky was similarly strongly sung (his repeated “spassibas” (with apologies for the spelling) especially strikingly characterised), but I thought just tired a fraction towards the end. George Gagnidze malevolent bass brought effective venom to Shaklovity. Also notable were fine pieces of character work from Norbert Ernst (Scribe) and Jennifer Rhys-Davies (Susanna). I'd slightly incline to the view that Prince Andrei would benefit from a slightly younger fresher singer, but Christopher Ventris delivered a solid performance. Vsevolod Grivnov was a similarly solid Golitsyn. The minor roles (many of them taken by members of one of the choruses) were strongly taken. The combined choirs of the BBC Singers and the Slovak Philharmonic Choir (reinforced in Act 1 by the Schola Cantorum of The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School and the Tiffin Boys Choir) were on superb form switching between their various roles and moods – for those who don't know the piece these range from drunken militia to unaccompanied religious chorale. Overall, I thought the work really benefitted from having so many people on stage for whom the Russian came naturally – giving a shape and punch to the setting that I don't recall hearing before (I did previously hear a visiting Russian performance of the work in New York but it was rather lacklustre). Finally, the BBC Symphony Orchestra supported the whole magnificently, including many fine individual solos (especially in the woodwind department) and nice dramatic work from the massed extra brass, well positioned by Bychkov high on the far left (as viewed from the Arena).
From chat around me it was clear that quite a few listeners had mixed views of the work. But I treasure it and have, since that first electric ENO performance (much of which came back into my mind as last night unfolded), found it an intensely dramatic work. I've been waiting a long time to hear it again live and this performance lived up to expectations. Given that, I imagine, ENO have a) junked the Zambello production along with so much else of their best history and, b) can't afford to stage an epic work like this, the Royal Opera House should get this team in for a new production straightaway (or, if times are straightened, perhaps they could buy in the Vienna production). In the meantime, perhaps the BBC might follow up this marvellous evening with a Bychkov led War and Peace next year (that other unjustly neglected great Russian epic). In the meantime, if you couldn't be in the hall or listening on-line last night I strongly encourage you to catch up via the Iplayer.
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