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Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina
by Peter Grahame Woolf
(The Opera Critic)

English National Opera
The Coliseum, London, 23 January 2003
Tomlinson, White, Grove, Randle, Rendall, Hunka, Leggate
English National Opera Orchestra
, conducted by Oleg Caetani

Haugland, Atlantov, Popov, Kocherga, Burchuladze, Lipovsek, Poschner-Klebel, Zednik, Borowska, Gahmlich
Vienna Boys' Choir / Slovak Philharmonic Chorus / Vienna State Opera Chorus / Vienna State Opera Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado
Philips CD 429 758-2

Opera is a strangely fragile genre; it demands suspension of rational belief and the creation of spells; there are those unable to swallow the intrinsic anomalies and conventions who dismiss opera as ridiculous. No spell was created for us on Thursday. Having recently enjoyed at home a pleasurable saturation in Russian opera by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Mussorgsky, I am pondering my considerable disappointment with this week's ENO revival of Khovanschina. I had prepared for it by listening to the magnificent Abbado/Vienna Staatsoper live recording of the 1989 production, in the orchestration by Shostakovich with Stravinsky's for the final scene.

For opera at home, I have a strong bias in favour of DVDs, together with what some may think an eccentric, possibly perverse desire to follow the words, even when they are banal. CDs offer on the page simultaneously visible texts in several languages, but that can cause strain, especially in fast moving ensemble passages which need rapid page turning. With DVDs you can choose one language, or decide to relinquish subtitles altogether.

In the opera house you are at the mercy of the company's language policy. Was the problem at ENO their unwavering commitment to Opera in english, albeit the texts are often mostly indecipherable in some parts of the Coliseum, on this occasion front central dress circle seats (expensive seats are not always the best for sound?). The production staff, who supervise from the front stalls and will have been steeped in the score for weeks, may find that hard to believe. Take someone straight out of the street into a rehearsal and they will quickly appreciate what I mean!

Francesca Zambello's award-winning original production, with a complex multipurpose metallic construction by Alison Chitty at its centre, provides no sense of place. It creates no illusion, nor is intended to; no magic, no transporting us into Old Russia. The whole exercise stubbornly remained a stage-bound affair, topically notable for deploying a large chorus (the ENO choristers distributed leaflets to remind us that they are imminently threatened with cuts and redundancies). They are used in a conventional manner and sang lustily, supported by children from numerous schools making a lively contribution.

This was a four-hour historical opera in which you could not care for the principals or become involved in the intricacies of 'the Khovanski affair', all the factions doomed under the shadow of a despotic off-stage Tsar. These characters 'are not making history - history is making them', writes Paul Griffiths in the excellent ENO programme book, contrasting Khovanschina with Boris Godunov. Dare one whisper that the best element of the evening was that book, compiled by Jennifer Batchelor and colleagues, full of meaty essays and apposite illustrations? (The whole complicated story of the opera as in the programme is on the ENO website - better try to absorb it before you take your seat for the performance.)

The conducting of Oleg Caetani was worthy and reliable, no more, and the evening felt as long as it was. There was good singing by Jill Grove, John Tomlinson, Willard White, Robin Leggate and others, for the most part with stock movements and gestures and minimal characterisation. We'd have had more to watch if we had chosen the later performance on February 11, scheduled to have ENO's delectable Wendy Ebsworth signing for the deaf.

So back again next morning to check reactions to the Vienna CDs. Faith in Khovanschina was restored immediately, the predominantly slow moving, rather simple four-in-a-bar phrases of the comfortably predictable music again casting a spell and transporting you into that evocative pre-revolutionary world of long ago Russia, with resonances to more recent disasters and tribulations for that troubled nation and many others of our own time.

The sonorous Russian of Abbado's great cast draws you into Mussorgsky's imagination and the cosmic scale of the events he is representing, events which shake the nation rather than concentrating upon individuals. The recorded live performance of Khovanschina on CD involves you inexorably with its slow yet purposive pacing, sumptuous orchestral and vocal sound, and the 350 page book included carries suitably selected evocative pictures. Finally, Abbado and his engineers bring us closer to Mussorgsky's musical language at home than could the combined forces of London's troubled English National Opera in their theatre.

The Philips productions of Khovanschina on CD, and the Kirov/Gergiev Boris Godunov on DVD recommended recently by The Opera Critic, are both available at reduced price for a limited period, and neither should be missed.

© Peter Grahame Woolf 2003.

© Peter Grahame Woolf