Modest Mussorgsky
Welsh National Opera
Mayflower, Southampton

Production photo
Production photo

The Khovansky Affair, with which Welsh National Opera delighted a full house at the Southampton Mayflower on Saturday, was originally the work of Mussorgsky and first performed in St Petersburg in 1886.

Several hands, however, have tinkered with this Shakespearean entertainment, among them Rimsky-Korsakov, who is reputed to have finished the work, and Shostakovich, whose score we generally enjoy today.

Aside from the multiplicity of composers, and the intricacies of the story of 17th century Russian struggles among rival factions in the years before the ascension of Peter the Great, there is a more serious problem for audiences who, even at their best, are not comfortable with the affairs of foreign nations.

As the performance is in English there are no surtitles, a fact much regretted among those whose interval lamantations I overheard.

English performances at London’s Coliseum are nowadays regularly surtitled and however clear the projection of the excellent WNO soloists, not least Robert Hayward in the title role as Ivan, and the excellent Salisbury-based mezzo Rosalind Plowright as Marfa, the gypsy storyteller, there is much restlessness in the house as the circle spectators, at least, struggle to get a grip on the complicated proceedings in the arena below.

When you are accustomed to the facility of a visible English text for Gilbert and Sullivan, one needs one's wits about one in following the Khovanskys, the old Russians and the new, the right wing and the left. Moreover, challenging Hayward’s Ivan is the rich bass Peter Hoare as Vassily - so unless you are familiar with their uniforms, the peril is clear.

Happily, these small tribulations fade with the unfolding of the visual story and the frequent appearances of the vast chorus – in this case at least sixty voices. The huge sound is remarkable. Welsh chorales usually make a fist of it, but this is truly remarkable – I doubt our English cathedrals have heard anything like this for some time!

More than that, David Pountney’s staging is as near spectacular as you can get on a stage which is almost always crowded.

Designer Johan Engles’ cranes swing in and out, conjuring the pre-war spectacle of Cammel Laird’s yard at Birkenhead. Hardly Red Square nor the distant forest but the atmosphere throughout is exciting. And all is welded magnificently by German conductor, Lothar Koenigs.

There are excellent performances by tenor Tom Randle as Andrei, Adrian Thompson as the scribe, Peter Sidhom as Shaklovity and Suzanne Murphy as Susanna.

And while Mr Hayward is stripped and dousing himself beneath a shower (I hope the water was hot), Beate Vollack, as his Persian slave, is dancing naked on a large globe to music redolent, surely, of Rimsky-Korsakov’s account, complete with Scheherazade!. Yet the spectacular closing trumpets and the stirring farewell chorus are, we are assured, the more recent work of Shostakovich

Nothing dull about Russian opera, then!

The performance, commencing at 6.30 pm, is at Milton Keynes on Sat 31st March, Swansea Grand Theatre on Sat 7th April and Birmingham Hippodrome on Saturday 14th April.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole

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