Khovanschina * *
Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome
Review by Christopher Morley
Mussorgsky is a composer who really needs all the help he can get. Apart from the original version of Boris Godunov, not one of his major works exists in the public domain without the input of generous colleagues. Even his fabulous Pictures at an Exhibition is better-known in Ravel's scintillating orchestration rather than in the somewhat ham-fisted piano original.
And Welsh National Opera's production of his Khovanschina doesn't go very far in helping the cause. It was a good idea on director David Pountney's part to update the action from the turbulent reforms of Peter the Great's reign over 300 years ago to more recent Stalinist times, though it was not easy to explain frequent references to commands from the Tsar and his family, in a translation which sat uneasily upon the voices.
Though diction and projection were up to WNO's consummately high standards, subtitles were sorely missed.
I was racking my brains to remember just how I had managed to take in so much of the opera's detailed (and often turgid) action when I reviewed it at Covent Garden 35 years ago.
Here everything, because unclear to the audience, emerges as inconsequential, including the wan eroticism of the naked Persian slave scene and the lukewarm conflagration at the end.
The singers tried their valiant best, though I could not feel comfortable with the ill-focused, laryngeal bass of Julian Close as the arch-traditional priest Dosifei.
As his associate Marfa, Rosalind Plowright brought a stunning consistency of timbre and tone across a difficult vocal range (clumsy Mussorgsky again).
Under the punchy conducting of Anthony Negus the tremendous WNO Orchestra played with its customary vigour and finesse, and the chorus were outstanding in the many demands the composer makes of them.