The government lies. The banks steal. The rich laugh. There are slogans aplenty, mostly leftwing, throughout Birmingham Opera Company’s latest extravaganza, because its director, Graham Vick, has a political agenda and likes to make his point. With BOC, the shoestring outfit he has been running for 27 years, he can afford to be provocative. BOC has solid community foundations: there are no sponsors to be offended.
But in his adaptation of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, Vick provokes with such artistic integrity that you accept everything in the spirit in which it is offered – a spirit of debate, about who we are, what we aspire to as a society, how we manage the changing fabric of our lives. Such questions should lie at the heart of all serious opera, he seems to be saying.
But you wouldn’t believe it on entering the Freedom Tent, a massive big top in a leafy Birmingham park. The space is plastered with up-to-date campaign posters advertising the electoral claims of Andrei Khovansky, an extreme rightwing politician. The audience is herded by menacing police (all actors) and, at various points throughout the evening, infiltrated by political agitators, gun-toting thugs and the religious right.
Gradually the performance surmounts its heavy-handedness and works a spell. Part of its magic stems from the illusion of reality/spontaneity and the way Vick makes every member of the audience a participant – even if standing for three and a half hours is a stretch. Another part of it stems from the production’s stark lighting and virtuoso crowd control: you can’t help being swept up in the inspired craziness, the sheer theatricality of it all.
And part of it stems from the timeless beauty of Mussorgsky’s score – performed more or less complete, in a gritty new English translation by Max Hoehn – and the conviction with which it is sung and played. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, superbly conducted by Stuart Stratford, is guarantor of musical standards, but the largely amateur chorus (Jonathan Laird) makes an equally vivid contribution, radiating Mussorgsky’s music with quasi-religious fervour.
Never mind that the words are often lost in such a large space. It’s the singers’ intensity and veracity that count – qualities exemplified by Claudia Huckle’s sensuous, impassioned Marfa. Keel Watson is the majestic Dosifei, Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts a big-hearted Golitsyn, and there are strong contributions from Joseph Guyton, Paul Nilon and Stephanie Corley. But to get the most from their boundary-breaking efforts, you have to be a True Believer – not in the conservative values articulated by Mussorgsky’s final chorus, but in Vick’s enlightened, transformative vision of opera.