Thursday, 24 March 2016

Mussorgsky - Khovanshchina (DNO, 2016 - Amsterdam)

Modest Mussorgsky - Khovanshchina

Dutch National Opera, 2016

Ingo Metzmacher, Christof Loy, Dmitry Ivaschenko, Maxim Aksenov, Kurt Streit, Gábor Bretz, Orlin Anastassov, Anita Rachvelishvili, Olga Savova, Andrei Popov, Svetlana Ignatovitch, Roger Smeets, Vasily Efimov, Morschi Franz, Vitali Rozynko, Sulkhan Jaiani, Richard Prada

Nationale Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam - 16 March 2016

With its complex view of Russian history and society, Khovanshchina must be one of the most overreachingly ambitious works of opera ever undertaken, the piece worked on by Mussorgsky for nine years before being left still in an unfinished state after the composer's death. Pulling the work together into something more coherent has been a challenge for other composers including Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovitch, but Khovanshchina is still an enormous challenge to stage. The Dutch National Opera's new production directed by Christof Loy bravely takes on the challenge, but almost inevitably it's not entirely successful.

There's a lot to get up on the stage in Khovanshchina, both physically and conceptually. Mussorgsky's great unfinished work is layered not only with the various political factions competing for power or even simply survival under the reign of the new ruler Peter the Great, but it also takes in the wider strata of society that is comprised of nobles, soldiers, religious factions and the common worker. All those various entities are further boiled down into the form of individual people with personal lives that are greatly affected by the uncertainty and the brutality of the times. It's a huge slice of Russian history up there on the stage in a fragmentary drama. No wonder Mussorgsky tried and failed to finish such a work.

It's no wonder too that Khovanshschina often fails on the stage. The recent Vienna production was heavily criticised for its static nature - this is a work that surely should be anything but static - but its vertical staging there did at least succeed in establishing the hierarchical nature of the Russian society and the attempts by each to climb its heights and end up falling low. Christof Loy's new production of the opera for the DNO similarly attempts to establish a construct that puts the work into context by connecting it to the present day, but in a work that already gives you a lot to take in, it's perhaps an unnecessary complication that doesn't really yield any greater insights into the Russia of the past or the present.

It wouldn't be the first time I haven't followed exactly what Loy is attempting to get across in his productions and yet have still been impressed at how he still gets the essence and full impact of the work across. The initial idea and inspiration behind the DNO's Khovanshchina is at least transparent, the curtain rising to reveal a tableau vivant of Vasily Surikov's 1881 painting 'Morning of the Streltsy's Execution', the epic scene of the painting reproduced in large scale behind the figures on the stage. One notable difference between the painting and the stage is the overturned cart and the dead white horse, both of which adorn the stage throughout most of the five acts. It's symbolism writ large, to which you can apply whatever meaning that comes to mind as you listen to the equally epic music that accompanies the unfolding horror of the events that lead up to the scene depicted in the painting.

Once the first act gets underway however we get the more familiar Christof Loy touches. The characters, or some of them at least, strip out of their period costumes and into modern-day suits. There remains a mix of period and modern dress that is evidently intended to draw a connection to how the past has influenced the present, but it's hard to see any direct link, particularly as there is enough to take in and remain focussed on just working out who the various historical factions are and where their allegiances lie. That actually is established fairly well, but whatever commentary is being made about the present regime, or whether there even is a direct commentary here, is less easy to discern.

More than just stripping off period historical baggage that might mean little to a modern audience, Loy's minimalism also serves to de-clutter the stage for those key scenes where Mussorgsky's epic drama has perhaps its greatest impact. Many of those scenes involve filling the stage for the huge choral pieces and crowd scenes that make such an impression and are such a vital part of a work that is about the Russian people, but Loy's quirky approach also achieves impact and results in other scenes of high drama such as the murder of Ivan Khovansky that precipitates the fall of the Streltsy. The dance of the Persian slaves for the Prince is performed by very young girls in shiny dresses (to the background of a glitter curtain) and it's superbly choreographed and performed, creating a suitably sinister environment even before Khovansky is stabbed by a little girl standing innocently alongside him.

Loy employs many such touches, large and small, including a marching brass band on the stage and, by no means least since he has a tremendous resource at his disposal, making good use of the chorus. This is my first live experience of the famous DNO chorus, although I have seen and heard them many times on DVD and on Dutch radio NTR4, and you couldn't ask for another work that would display their talents more fully than Khovanshchina. Their input was simply phenomenal. If it's hard to say that Loy succeeded in putting all of Russia on the stage, the chorus nonetheless contributed greatly towards it, and it helped also that there was also a cast of fine Russian principal singers in this production.

Among a consistently strong line-up, Anita Rachvelishvili was most impressive as Marfa and Dmitry Ivaschenko an authoritative Khovansky, but Kurt Streit also held his own among all those Russian voices with a fine performance as Prince Golitsin. Ingo Metzmacher conducted the orchestra through the Shostakovitch edition of the work, which might not have the same epic quality and refinement of the Rimsky-Korsakov's version, but in line with the production, the singing and the acting performances, the emphasis was on the importance of the individual human stories caught up in the vast scope of the historical period drama. On that level at least, this was certainly a successful account of the work.

Links: Nationale Opera & Ballet, NTR4 Radio Broadcast