Online production of the month: Khovanshchina

11:20, 16th April 2019

Khovanshchina Mussorgsky

La Scala, Milan

Review by James Imam

Photography by Brescia & Amisano


Crouched over his score like a sorcerer, fingers fluttering vividly, Valery Gergiev exudes demonic intensity. Put the right piece in front of the Russian maestro, and the results can be earthshattering. And so it was with La Scala’s new production of Khovanshchina.

The last time Mussorgsky’s epic ‘national music drama’ appeared at this house, in 1998, Gergiev was on the podium. Back for its latest outing, he drew a performance of awe-inspiring proportions.

Nothing less is required for an epic work like Khovanshchina. Spliced together from episodes of late 17th-century Russian history, Mussorgsky’s own libretto is an engrossing meditation on the birth of the modern nation. Counterpoised factions ferociously wrangle over their futures, as Peter the Great’s reformist agenda marches inexorably on. Unprepared to watch Mother Russia go to the dogs, the conservative Old Believers burn themselves to death.

Film and stage director Mario Martone put the high-capacity stage machinery through its paces, with a colossal vision of an imagined dystopia in which drones fly across brooding skies (Blade Runner is a reference), the rampaging Streltsy invade snowy landscapes and a lonely marksman shoots at a flock of birds, repeatedly missing the mark.

Mussorgsky’s bleak vision, we are reminded, concerned not just Russia’s past but also its present and future, while his reflection on the nature of power and national identity concerns us all.

Such suggestive cinematic backdrops do not come at the expense of detail. The periodic appearance of the princes Ivan and Peter was superfluous, when the latter’s unspoken presence is ominously suggested in the score; but having the vodka-swigging Khovansky tormented by visions like a drunken Macbeth during the Dance of the Persian Slaves, here re-imagined as a striptease, was highly dramatic.

That said, proceedings were dominated by the potent evocations emanating from the pit. Gergiev mined the depths of Shostakovich’s rescoring of Mussorgsky, unearthing playing that was by turns agonised, richly nuanced and majestic, while carefully balancing orchestral forces to create an awesomely full-bodied sound. The chorus is this work’s chief protagonist, and the La Scala forces were formidable as berating Muscovite wives, lamenting priests and riotous Strelsty.

Mikhail Petrenko, a loutish Khovansky, effortlessly dwarfed his son Andrey (Sergey Skorokhodov), while Ekaterina Semenchuk was an ardent Marfa, Stanislav Trofimov a noble Dosifey and Maxim Paster a hysterical Scrivener. Evgeny Akimov was strident as Golitsin. The star turn came from rising soprano Evgenia Muraveva as Emma the Lutheran maid. A special performance all round.

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