Mussorgsky – Khovanshchina

(Shostakovitch orchestration with a finale by J. David Jackson)

La Monnaie, Brussels, May 25 2003

Conductor: Kazushi Ono. Production: Stein Winge. Ivan Khovansky: Willard White. Andreï Khovansky: Pär Lindskog. Vassily Golitzin: Glenn Winslade. Shaklovity: Ronnie Johansen. Dossifei: Anatoli Kocherga. Marfa: Elena Zaremba. Emma: Helène Bernardy.

If I say once again how rarely, at the opera, everything comes together right, I’ll be blackballed by friends for repeating myself. Or maybe, this time, for contradicting myself, as in a weekend of opera in Paris and Brussels two out of three were winners (Jenufa, cf my review, and now La Monnaie's Khovanshchina, the rotten apple being J. Miller’s production of La Traviata, despite Patricia Racette's efforts to make the best of a bad job).

With Jenufa, at the Châtelet in Paris , the plot was delivered with the unity, simplicity and force of Greek tragedy. With Khovanshchina in Brussels, we had a real socio-political epic. Jenufa worked through economy of means and individual acting skills to weave a private, family drama. Economy of means would hardly apply to Khovanshina, although success probably lies in avoiding overcomplicated staging to avoid further complicating the plot, and otherwise handling the crowds convincingly.

Stein Winge’s production isn’t new. Indeed I’d seen it before myself and forgotten how good it was; or perhaps, that first time, I’d had too much lunch, or too much wine with it, and dozed. It is very good indeed. There’s basically a single set: at the rear, brick walls and a large, double iron door topped with a grimy fanlight. For all I know this may be the rear entrance to La Monnaie’s stage, through which scenery comes. To each side and to the fore, an iron spiral stair. This space works effectively as a street, a courtyard or, with a huge drape and huge carpet, palace interior. Costumes tell us we’re probably in the late 19th century, perhaps nearing the revolution; an idea that works.

A sense of oppression, violence, fear and suspicion is established at the outset by black-suited bodies hanging on long ropes, let down with a crash and loaded on to carts; it is continued, for example at Shaklovity’s, by people entering or leaving through trapdoors or by the spiral stairs.

The show was rehearsed to perfection. The soloists were, in any case, singers with charisma and presence. Crowd movements were properly choreographed; there were no dangling arms or yawning at the back, everyone was committed and knew what they were doing and when. This was really a model of how theatrical sense can be made of Mussorgsky’s potentially rambling works.

As the cast is long, I’ll be brief. You all know Willard White, you know he stands well and struts even better, and doesn’t sing too badly either. Kocherga (Dossifei), however is the kind of bass we all immediately think we recognize as Russian. He’s Ukrainian. The kind of voice that runs from a faint, high-pitched buzz to a vast, cavernous blast, making White seems somehow underpowered beside him. You wonder, at times, if you can really believe your ears.

There’s some surprise involved, too, in seeing and hearing Elena Zaremba (Marfa). You’re intrigued that such a large, round, deep, strong, Slavic mezzo-to-contralto voice should emerge from such a slight figure, and surprised to read she specializes in Carmen. Lindskog, (Prince Andreï) is not a Russian tenor but could be: a ringing voice, capable of some nuance, perhaps a Don José for Zaremba’s Carmen.

The orchestra and chorus of La Monnaie seem to like their new musical director, Kazushi Ono. They sang and played better, I think, than I’ve ever heard before in 12 seasons there (perhaps they were as good in Verdi’s Otello some years back; I remember the full-frontal blast of the opening storm…) The usually restrained Belgians gave the performance a long ovation. I may even have heard people cheer…

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