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Khovanshchina review at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff – ‘unmissable’

The WNO chorus in Khovanshchina at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff. Photo: Clive Barda
The WNO chorus in Khovanshchina at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff. Photo: Clive Barda
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Mussorgsky’s mighty historical epic, Khovanshchina, is eloquent in the very sprawl of its design. Left unfinished at his untimely death, the opera plunges into the lethal politics of 17th-century Russia; a nation seething with factional intrigue and religious fanaticism which – not for the first or last time in its ongoing story – bring it to the brink of reform or collapse.

Director David Pountney revives his deeply intelligent, Soviet-inspired 2007 production to stunning effect for Welsh National Opera’s Russian Revolution season, bringing cinematic sweep to 20th-century analogies all-too relevant to present times.

Amidst the grey, constructivist ruins of office/palace/city square, terrified peasants and Streltsy overseers alike become prospective collateral damage as polity battles rage between their aristocratic masters. The one ash-robed, the other spattered with spilt blood and wine, each lowly collective is powerfully given voice by the WNO chorus.

The cast, too, sing wonderfully. For the Khovanskys (a superbly afflicted Robert Hayward and brutish Adrian Dwyer), ecstasy and perversion elide as their plot against the Tsar unravels. Ivan is murdered by Golitsyn (a ruthless Mark Le Brocq) post-enjoyment of his Persian sex slave (Beate Vollack): Andrei perishes alongside Old Believers who, at the behest of Miklós Sebestyén’s chillingly persuasive Dosifei, play follow-my-leader to the gas chamber rather than breathe a new atmosphere of change.

Hence Marfa (Sara Fulgoni) – the abused lover-turned-martyr who flits between factions like a magical moth of doom - gets her self-destroying revenge and supposed release.

As a metaphor for any people’s fate, it’s horrifyingly bleak. But in Shostakovich’s marvellous orchestration, the score resounds with life and colour, thanks also to a WNO orchestra on top form under conductor, Tomas Hanus. Unmissable.

 

Verdict
An unmissable historical epic gives resounding voice to a suffering people
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