Teatro Alla Scala 2018-19 Review: Khovanshchina

Mussorgsky’s Famed Opera Gets a Gritty But Powerful Futuristic Perspective

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Brescia/Amisano – Teatro alla Scala)

Defeated by the Tsar, the Old Believers gather together, for a final act of defiance as they prepare for their mass suicide. Led by the monk, Dosifey, they crowd the stage and invoke the name of the Lord, in preparation for their deaths. The Moon, slowly moving towards the Earth, explodes into flames and sets fire to the land. A heavy red light covers the stage, bright orange flames rage in the background and around the sides, as the orchestra pounds out the final bars, whilst the curtain slowly closes in on the apocalyptic scene.

Thus ended Teatro La Scala’s stunning production of Mussorgsky’s epic “Khovanshchina.”

A True Epic

The opera, set during the reign of Peter the Great, was a time of great upheaval in Russian society, in which two opposing historical forces clash, the outcome of which was to shape the future direction of the society.

On the one side, there are the conservative forces represented by a large part of the landed Boyar class, and the religious sect of Old Believers, who are given a voice by the leader of the Streltsy, Ivan Khovansky, and the monk, Dosifey. Whilst those who want to modernise Russia coalesce around the figure of the young Tsar, Peter the Great, whose oppressive presence hangs over the work, even though he is never actually seen. It is left to his henchman, the Boyar Shaklovity, to speak for him.

Mussorgsky, however, does not depict these factions in a crude, simplistic manner, but introduces a considerable amount of conflict within the groupings; Dosifey and Khovansky may both be firmly set against the Tsar’s reforms, but they have little else in common and inevitably clash; whilst the reformer, Prince Golitsyn, is justifiably seen as a threat to Peter’s position, being as much interested in modernising Russia as he is in grabbing power for himself. Then, of course, there is another group, that of the Russian people, the opera’s real victims, whose fate is to suffer the fallout of this power struggle.

Mussorgsky’s epic opera brilliantly captures the ebb and flow of this clash, whilst at the same time capturing the individual lives of people caught up within the struggle, laying bare the brutality and violence of such confrontations. Ultimately, however, it is the Tsar Peter who triumphs; Prince Golitsyn is exiled, Ivan Khovansky is assassinated and the Old Believers are consumed by the flames. It is an ending which has a feeling of inevitability, as if the modernizing faction is walking in step with the forces of history. Yet, Mussorgsky is able to accomplish this without compromising the drama itself; it never loses its drive or its ability to engage, nor does it at any point become predictable.

Stepping Into the Future

Such fundamental clashes have not only defined the path of Russian history, but of all societies and will, no doubt, continue to do so until the end of history itself. For this presentation, the director, Mario Martone, managed to capture this dimension by giving the work a futuristic setting, although in a distinctive Russian context; it is a future that lies beyond that of Tsar Peter’s 17th century, beyond that of Mussorgsky’s 19th century, and beyond our own 21st century, yet it never lets go of references which link the work backwards to past eras.

Martone, along with scenographer, Margherita Palli, created an opening act which can only be described as a post-industrial dystopia, dominated by black, brutal industrial complexes in various states of decay and destruction. Dark clouds of pollution hang over the cityscape, through which red lights from the top of buildings shine, and flying cars occasionally cross. It is a depressingly grim and violent picture, one in which authority is validated by the gun, and gave Khovansky and his Streltsy thugs their power.

Pasquale Mari’s lighting added to the heavy atmosphere, which even the dawn was was unable to brighten; there was no hint of optimism or of a more auspicious future. The following acts were set in Golitsyn’s bombed-out country dacha or on the outskirts of the city, under a pale blue wintery sky, and if they could be considered less successful, (although not unsuccessful), they nevertheless had the effect of magnifying the emotional force and brilliance of the apocalyptic final act.

Ursula Patzak’s costumes were Russian in style, but not specific to a particular time period. So Ivan Khovansky strode around the stage in a long fur-lined coat, typical of the 19th century, whereas Saklovity was dressed in a 20th century long leather coat, looking as if he walked out of the KGB headquarters. Patzak also captured the tribal nature of the conflict by having Dosifei’s followers clothed as paramilitary monks, while Kohovansky’s Streltsy wore military uniforms, which not only complemented the staging but also amplified its brutality and violence.

The Coro del Teatro alla Scala playing the role of the Russian people, as well as the various paramilitary groups and religious zealots was excellent, and under the direction of the Maestro del Coro, Bruno Casoni, gave a passionate and energetic performance; their singing highlighting the deep suffering and pain which infected the country. In the final chorus, the Old Believers, staring into the eternal flames, call out in praise of their God, their voices firm and steadfast, which added in no small measure to the hair-raising climax.

Imperiousness Embodied

Mikhail Petrenko put in an imperious performance in the role of Ivan Khovansky. Within the chaotic environment in which the powerful compete and fight for more power, Khovansky, known as the “White Eagle,” is seen as the people’s savior.

In Act one, Petrenko strutted around the stage with authority, with the air of a man who believes he has the right to command, drinking in the praises and pleas from the people. His singing was authoritative and firm with an open, clean sound, which commanded attention.

By Act three, Khovansky is a broken man, and seeks solace in pleasure. Petrenko’s transformation of his character was superbly executed, his drunken groping of the dancers was unambiguously depraved, and the assassins bullet more an act of kindness. It was a powerful performance in which Petrenko brought out the different facets of the character, founded upon his subtle and nuanced phrasing, which highlighted the meaning of the words.

Living Off His Father’s Reputation

Sergey Skorokhodov produced a solid portrayal of Ivan Khovansky’s self-indulgent son, Andrey Khovansky. Without redeeming qualities, Andrey lives off his father’s reputation and abuses his position. He is passionate, but wildly inconsistent, and thoroughly untrustworthy. In the final scene, having been forgiven by Marfa, they face the fire together, his final words ring out “O! Emma, Emma.” He is clearly beyond redemption.

Skorokhodov has a pleasing tenor, which he used effectively to characterise the role, although it occasionally exhibited a metallic edge. His brutal personality was brought to the fore in his attempted seduction-cum-rape of Emma in the first act, in which he moved swiftly from desperate pleading, in which the voice was forceful and heavily adorned with dynamic accents, to menacing threats, in which the voice became saturated with violent overtones.

However, there was hesitancy in his characterization, possibly deliberately so, which gave Andrey a weak underbelly, making his behavior more believable.

Vibrant Genius Abounds

Marfa is a multi-layered character, informed by an interesting backstory. Born into an aristocratic family, she abandoned the easy life to join the Old Believers, and became a prophetess. She also had a romantic relationship with Andrey Khovansky, whom she still loves. It is a role requiring a singing actress who is able to bring depth to a character, and for this production it fell to the mezzo-soprano, Ekaterina Semenchuk. Hers is versatile voice indeed, and with such a colorful palette, especially in the lower register. She crafted a nuanced reading in which she managed to depict both Marfa’s inner strength, and the emotional torment caused by Andrey’s casual disregard for her, and almost alone among the numerous characters, with the exception of Emma, she is a decent person, who tries to follow a righteous path. It was an expressive performance in which her detailed phrasing uncovered the complexities of her character.

Evgeny Akimov’s bright, agile and clearly projected tenor was well-suited to the role of Prince Golitsyn. Although not appearing until the second act he has a significant role. His opening aria, “Warmest greetings to you, Vashenka,” allows the tenor to stamp his mark on the character, in which he reflects on letters he has received from his lover, the mother of the Tsar, and from his own mother. It is a complex aria of entangled emotions, underpinned by his apprehensive nature. Akimov gave a strong rendition, in which his subtly crafted phrases, decked with accented inflections produced an expressive a forceful depiction of the Prince.

Stanislav Trofimov played the role of Dosifey as an aloof, calm leader, secure in his belief, with only the occasional outburst, in order to calm others. His assuredness bordered on arrogance as he happily led his followers to their deaths. He has a wonderful bass with plenty of depth. His singing was even and well-measured, it was secure and clear with a delightful timbre.

Intimidating Master

Alexey Markov certainly knows how to portray an intimidating character. His essaying of the role of Saklovity was a masterclass in how to depict a cold, calculating psychopath. His whole demeanor exuded menace. His movements were deliberate and precise, his facial expressions mean and cynical. Markov backed this up with a fine vocal performance in which he infused the voice with a vicious curl, intelligently accenting the vocal line for maximum effect.

In Act one, the tenor, Maxim Paster, gave a strong performance in the role of the Scribe. Menaced by Shaklovity and bullied by the crowd, Paster produced a convincing performance of a man trying to maintain his dignity whilst under stress. His voice was secure, with a pleasing timbre. He sang with a noble air, and projected the voice firmly. In Act three, things did not go so smoothly, and failed to maintain the same high standard.

Evgenia Muraveva playing the relatively small role of Emma made a powerful impression. She possesses a beautiful soprano, which she is able to project with real force. Andrey Khovansky has become obsessed with her, and attempts to convince her to succumb to his advances, but when this fails he becomes more violent and threatens to rape her. Muraveva’s singing was wonderfully expressive, her bright, piercing top register brilliantly capturing the terror of the experience. It was unfortunate that it was such a small part
(Fortunately, however, Muraveva will be singing the role of Renata in Opera Roma’s production of Prokofiev’s “The Fiery Angel,” in May, which will be reviewed by Operawire)!

Irina Vashchenko gave a powerful and expressive performance as Susanna. Her soprano has a beautiful timbre, which she employs with agility, consistency and strength. Her confrontation with Marfa in Act three was well-sung, the two voices nicely complementing each other. Strangely, she was not portrayed as old woman, which changed the dynamic of the confrontation, but not necessarily for the worse.

At the final curtain call the most enthusiastic applause was reserved for the conductor, Valery Gergiev, who led the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala in a scintillating and pulsating performance. From the overture, in which he generated the majestic sweep of Mussorgsky’s music, through to the final act, in which the orchestra hammered out the closing bars, Gergiev captured the deep emotional intensity of the drama, adopting a pace which was always perfectly allied to the work’s dramatic momentum. His attention to detail was impressive and his control of the overall structure outstanding. The balance of the large musical forces was managed impeccably, both within the orchestra and between the stage and the pit. It was a performance of the highest quality.

This was a wonderful production, in which both the staging and the musical side of the production combined to create a performance which will live long in the memory. From the opening scene to the breathtaking finale this was a presentation which grabbed the attention and did not let go.


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