Khovanshchina: Mussorgsky at the Proms

The problem here was that the translation used for the surtitles was most
assuredly not that in the programme, which could conceivably lead to
confusion. It certainly added an extra layer of interest, albeit an
unnecessary one.

Perhaps describing this performance as “semi-staged” is pushing it. There
was some lighting for the culminatory pyre skittering across the RAH’s
ceiling and elsewhere, although it was as a gesture rather underwhelming
(the ending is a cross between the closing moments of Gˆtterd‰mmerung and Dialogues des Carmelites). George
Gagnidze’s sparkly bowtie was frankly more memorable than the light show.
And yet, the performance itself was magnificent, guided impeccably by
Semyon Bychkov, who previously led a Khovanshcina at the Vienna
State Opera in 2014. The score operates across a huge canvas. Requiring
large chorus (the BBC Singers here cannily augmented by the Slovak
Philharmonic Choir, darkening the sound), equally large orchestra and a
great long list of soloists, Mussorgsky’s epic pulls no punches. The same
is true emotionally, as the political events unfold (the Streltsy revolts
led by Ivan Khovansky, religious conservatism in the shape of the Old
Believers, events around the beginning of Tsar Peter I’s reign). The
characters Dosifey – Ain Anger sporting a prominent cross – and Marfa – who
had previous romantic links to Koslovsky sung by the astonishing Elena
Maximova – represent the old ways. In his excellent programme note, Simon
Morrison of Princeton University suggests that Marfa is the character that
reflects Mussorgsky’s own beliefs the best – and as such, she has some of
the finest music.

Mussorgsky’s characteristically earthy writing (some might say
unsophisticated) is there openly and unapologetically in this score,
linking aurally to the original version of Boris Godunov and the
piano original of Pictures. As with Boris (done at last
year’s Proms under Pappano), also, the chorus is a palpable protagonist, no
mere commentator. All credit to the multiple choirs on this occasion for
providing such a powerful experience. Both Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky
offered solutions to Mussorgsky’s incomplete score (and indeed
orchestration), but on this occasion it was the Shostakovich 1959 edition
that was used.

Bychkov can be a variable conductor, but on this occasion he was on (pardon
the pun, given the opera’s conclusion) blazing form. The choruses followed
him impeccably; he paced the action and the individual lines so once could
clearly here not only the words but also that the words flowed at a
believable speed of delivery. His way with the opening “Dawn on the Moscow
River” (the most excerpted part of the score) was radiant and loving. Thank
goodness Khovanshchina is no Pearl Fishers, wherein
everyone knows the big duet near the opening and the score becomes ever
more variable from that point. Mussorgsky’s opera, while not at white heat
of inspiration throughout, is an incredibly impressive animal. The way the
momentum just stopped dead at the entry of the Musocvites in Act I was
remarkable, for example (as was the way no-one could miss the folkish tinge
to the Musicovites’ melodies later). The suddenly radiant textures in the
final act, when Marfa nostalgically refers to the love previously shared
between herself and Khohvansky, was another such moment of revelation,
stunningly done by Bychkov and his forces.

Choral contributions, whether of revolt or prayer, were always perfectly
judged; just occasionally, perhaps, the higher voices struggled with some
of Mussorgsky’s demands.

The singers assembled for this performance, too, were generally of the
highest calibre. As Prince Ivan Khovansky, the Croatian Ante Jerkinica’s
deep voice meant that even high in his register the sound was burnished; he
exuded confidence and command. His son in the opera, Prince Andrey
Khovansky, was taken by Heldentenor Christopher Ventris, known to many
through his Parsifal and Lohengrin. Not quite given that opportunity to
shine on this occasion, he remains a strong character and, indeed, voice;
his sound perfectly complemented that of the Emma when the two were
juxtaposed, that role taken by the excellent, fresh Anush Hovhannisyan.
Georgian George Gagnidze was a dark-voiced Shaklovity in the Russian
tradition – his prolonged lamentation for Russia in act three was

A dignified and strong Dosifey, Estonian bass Ain Anger reveled in his
character’s unshakable faith in Russia’s church. Often, his lines are
prefaced by the direction “with mystical emotion” or the suchlike, and so
it was in execution; his interactions with Marfa in the third act were one
of the evening’s highlights. He reached the heights of his portrayal in the
ultra-beautiful and heartfelt moonlit soliloquy that opens the fifth and
final act. As Golitsy, Vsevolod Grivnov revealed a beautifully baritonal
tenor voice.

In a strong cast, it was the young Elena Maximova’s Marfa that shone
brightest of all. A voice of huge resonance in its lower registers, she
made each note count. Her stage presence, too, is riveting while her sense
of line, particularly in evidence in the second act, revealed the most
perfect legato; yet her invocation of “mysterious forces” before she skries
the future in a bowl of water held all the depth of a Russian Cunning
Woman. When Mussorgsky writes for the upper reaches of her voice (in the
fourth act), Maximova revealed a glistening, steely top.

Norbert Ernst was a brilliant, characterful Scribe, whose music sometimes
veers very much towards the Fool’s music from Boris. This role
requires much stamina, and Ernst never seemed to tire at all. A shame
Jennifer Rhys-Davis’ Susanna, one of the Old Believers, was so saturated in
vibrato. Smaller roles were uniformly well-taken, Colin Judson as Kuzka
making the most of his act three song; a special mention also for Thomas
Raskin’s Streshnev, whose few lines were delivered with impeccable diction.

Chorally this was a triumph, the assembled choruses carrying real heft. The
Streltsy were a force to be reckoned with, while the Peasant Girls of the
fourth act conjured just the right amount of folksy lilt. The orchestra was
the best I have heard it for literally years, possibly decades (going back
to the era of G¸nter Wand) – on an individual level. the cor anglais solo
in the fourth act “Dance of the Persian Slave Girls” was meltingly done by
Alison Teale. This is the moment when Mussorgsky seems to prefigure
Rimsky’s Sheherazade.

A superb performance; and to hear the BBC Symphony Orchestra on such form
was both a joy and a privilege.

Colin Clarke

Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina (orch. Shostakovich, concert performance
sung in Russian)

Ante Jerkunica – Ivan Khovansky, Christopher Ventris –
Andrey Khovansky, Vsevolod Grivnov – Golitsin, Elena Maximova – Marfa,Ain
Anger – Dosifey, George Gagnidze – Shaklovity, Jennifer Rhys-Davies –
Norbert Ernst – Scribe,
Anush Hovhannisyan – Emma, Colin Judson –
Kuzka, Philip Tebb, Charles Gibbs – Soldiers, Jamie W. Hall – Varsonofiev,
Christopher Bowen – Servant to Golitsyn, Thomas Raskin – Streshnev;
conductor – Semyon Bychkov. Paul Curran – stage director, Peter Weigold – assistant conductor,
Alexandra Golubitskaya – repetiteur, Alexandre Naoumenko – Russian coach,
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Schola Cantorum of The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial
School, Tiffin Boys’ Choir, BBC Singers, Slovak Philharmonic Choir.

Royal Albert Hall, London; Sunday 6th August 2017.

image_description=Khovanshchina, Prom 29
product_title=Khovanshchina, Prom 29
product_by=A review by Colin Clarke
product_id= Elena Maximova (Marfa)

Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou