This Khovanshchina shows Welsh National Opera at its absolute best, a monumental if occasionally erratic work, requiring huge forces. Johan Engel’s set design, framed by angled and tilting walls and steps, beautifully lit by Fabrice Kebour, is a triumph in conjuring the atmosphere of the unsettling and revolutionary times depicted. Costuming also helps elaborate which of the various factions of the Russian populace are involved, as does David Pountney’s insightful direction.
Khovanshchina is something of a pageant opera, depicting as it does a set of partly fictionalised scenes from a turbulent period of Russia’s history, with commentary and response to events. The Chorus of WNO was the vocal star – lusty, militaristic or spiritual and delivered with commitment and stamina. Likewise the orchestra under Tomáš Hanus, the many felicities of the score in Shostakovich’s orchestration emerged with immediacy and impact. Hanus’s reading is generally extrovert, fleet and dramatic, although time-wise it was more protracted than most recordings. The off-stage brass contributions were handled with aplomb, and the more conventionally ‘operatic’ moments are insinuatingly charming. Best of all was the sense of unfolding history that Hanus and the players evoked.
Robert Hayward’s incisive bass-baritone was heard to powerful effect as Ivan Khovansky and he caught the charisma, flawed authority and arrogance of the conservative aristocrat well. Miklós Sebestyén’s generous bass provided great contrast as the thoughtful and spiritual Dosifei, also revealing reserves of authoritative power particularly at the point where Dosifei is roused to anger in response to the views of Khovansky and Golitsyn. It’s a great part and he made the most of it. Mark Le Brocq is a wily, vain Golitsyn, at his best in the grandiose descriptions of his military successes – the scene where these three argue over the future direction of the realm from their entrenched positions was sensational. Simon Bailey was a suitably enigmatic Shaklovity, the metal tint to his voice adding much to his influence, and Adrian Thompson provided sterling character as the scribe.
The part of Marfa is a long and difficult one. The tessitura is generally very low, and the character has simultaneously to evoke the voice of Mother Russia, whilst being a fortune-teller, a devout religious woman and a betrayed lover. Sarah Fulgoni may lack the voluminous lower registers but she husbanded her resources well and delivered the role with unfailingly warm and generous tone allied to a compelling stage persona. The Emma and Susanna were superbly taken by respectively Claire Wild and Monika Sawa. Adrian Dwyer provided a lyrical and tireless account of Prince Andrei, the arrogant playboy prince brought down by his own weaknesses, desires and family affiliations. A great evening.