Prince Ivan Khovansky: Robert Hayward - Persian Slave: Elena Thomas; Photo © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL

Russian to destruction!

by Lucien Jenkins

After opening with some lovely woodwind playing, Musorgsky’s libretto (all his own work) sets up three groups in a 17th-century power struggle. Perhaps to help the audience navigate the politics, the costume design (Marie-Jeanne Lecca) has them colour coded. The colour choices themselves suggest bloodshed, purity and wealth.

In the pink corner, the Khovanskys of the title lead the Streltsy forces. This opera presents the latter as a nastier version of Dumas’ musketeers, a roistering gang with a nice line in drinking songs. Uniformly illiterate, they and the crowd of peasants equally depend on Adrian Thompson’s scribe (a stand-out among minor characters) to know what’s in the posters and papers.

Robert Hayward’s Prince Ivan Khovansky is corrupt and vile, a menacing and rather rough-voiced bass plotting to seize women prisoners and the throne. His tenor son Prince Andrei is the Uday Hussein of the piece, first seen attempting to rape Emma (a desperate Claire Wild). She is Lutheran, reflecting the importance of German immigration to Russia and feeding the xenophobia that’s part of the opera’s politics. Emma is rescued by a combination of Andrei’s ex, Marfa, sung by Sara Fulgoni with great character but uneven power, Andrei’s father, who wants Emma for himself, and Dosifei (Miklós Sebestyén), leader of the conservative and contrastingly white-clad Old Believers, who confides Emma to Marfa’s care. With me so far?

Black-clad Marfa herself later falls out with white-clad Susannah (Monika Sawa); Dosifei takes the side of the piano penitent mezzo against the forte self-righteous soprano.

Sebestyén uses his slow-paced, smoothly solemn bass role to convey the quiet charisma of the religious leader, a nobleman who has surrendered his privileges, earning his fellow boyars’ mockery.

A third group is the West-leaning nobility, here embodied by Prince Vasily Golitsyn (Mark Le Brocq, in a gold coat). First seen sweetly reading a love letter from his own ex-girlfriend the regent Sofia, Golitsyn is set up as a torch-song tenor, making it difficult for him to turn a plot corner and become the symbol of modernising and thus the object of both Streltsy and Old Believer hostility.

After a lot of striding and threatening, the story ends with the Streltsy pardoned and the Old Believers dying. Robert Hayward is stabbed Marat-like in a bath by Shaklovity (Simon Bailey) having had the concluding pleasure of watching his Persian slave (Beata Vollack in her own sinuous choreography; she shares the role with Elena Thomas) dancing into and out of his bath in flesh-coloured tights amid Eastern-tinted harmony.

Tsar Peter’s own forces take control, but despite the breezy fanfares (it’s a great night for brass and percussion all round), David Pountney’s production makes it clear that any celebration is mixed. What looks like a monarch-ex-machina ending is enacted by a bunch of armed thugs who look no improvement on the Streltsy. The latter’s defeat and pardon is followed by the Old Believer immolation, wherein Andrei is reconciled to both Marfa and his fate.

One hero of the evening is the orchestra and its conductor Tomáš Hanus, who was able to bring out the underlying grammar of the music and allow its sentences to speak. Another was the chorus, who triumph in the blazing anthemic showstoppers.

The stage design (Johan Engels) draws on the Constructivism of 1920s Russia. The hung-over Streltsy awaken in Act 1 around a slimmed-down version of Tatlin’s Tower. Golitsyn starts Act 2 by pacing admiringly in front of an abstract painting with some of its diagonals extended outside the frame. The dominant diagonals of the scenery emphasise the inherent instability of everything in Russia at the time – a regency, a woman in charge, two brothers both proclaimed tsar and both in their minority, an Orthodox Church led (and sundered) by a reforming Patriarch.

Shuffling slowly towards the exit afterwards, one historically-challenged audience member asked their date, “What was all that about exactly?” I considered offering Woody Allen’s helpful dictum about War and Peace, “It’s about Russia”. But thought better of it.