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The boyars (oligarchs) are manoeuvring for power. The Streltsy (post-KGB secret police) continue their dirty business. Golitsyn (west-leaning moderniser) struggles unsuccessfully for influence. And Old Mother Russia blunders on, too unwieldy to care about the mass of ordinary people.
The parallels between Russia 300 years ago and Russia today are obvious when you scratch beneath Khovanshchina. Musorgsky’s four-hour epic dramatises the turmoil preceding Peter the Great’s accession but carries modern resonances in Vladimir Putin et al. David Pountney, director of Welsh National Opera’s new production, sees a further link with our times – between Dosifei, leader of Musorgsky’s Old Believers, and the secular fundamentalists who have become powerbrokers in the world’s most dangerous conflicts.
Such parallels are fine as a starting-point for discussion. It takes a clever producer to translate them to the stage, as Herbert Wernicke did in his Salzburg Boris, without the opera getting lost in the middle – exactly what happens here. With powerful performances from London’s two established companies, not to mention the Mariinsky and continental opera houses, still fresh in the memory, Pountney’s attempt to stress the “relevance” of Khovanshchina falls flat. An opera that can seem gloomy even in the most flattering light emerges as shapeless and inchoate.
The single V-shaped set (Johan Engels) is a mess of steps, entrances, railings, desks, mechanical ramps and concrete diagonal extension: it looks as cramped and synthetic as it is poorly lit. The chorus clambers about in identikit suits (Marie-Jeanne Lecca). The Act 4 ballet (Beate Vollack) consists of a romp around a bathtub and a globe. With the exception of Peter Hoare’s Golitsyn, Adrian Thompson’s Scribe, Tom Randle’s Khovansky fils and the chorus tenors, English diction is so poor that I would rather have Russian with surtitles.
No one has a chance to make an impression – not Rosalind Plowright’s melodramatic Marfa, not Robert Hayward’s blustering Khovansky père, not Julian Close’s anonymous Dosifei. And when the music is conducted as drily as it is by Lothar Koenigs, it does not matter which of the available versions of the score you use. As with its Don Carlos a while ago WNO has let ambition get the better of good sense.