Khovanshchina, Mussorgsky


Camilla Nylund (Emma), Helena Jungwirth, Lana Kos, Anaïk Morel (Old Believers), Doris Soffel (Marfa), Klaus Florian Vogt (Prince Andrei Khovansky), John Daszak (Prince Vasily Golitsyn), Ulrich Reß (Scribe), Valery Alexeiev (Shaklovity), Kevin Conners (Kuzka), Paata Burchuladze (Prince Ivan Khovansky), Anatoli Kotscherga (Dosifei)

Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Bayerischen Staatsoper c. Kent Nagano

p.& d. Dmitri Tcherniakov video director Karina Fibich

Medici Arts 2072428 (174 minutes) 



Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky


Tatiana Monogareva (Tatiana), Margarita Mamsirova (Olga), Makvala Kasrashvili(Madame Larina), Emma Sarkisyan (Filippyevna), Andrei Dunaev (Lenski), Mariusz Kwiecien (Eugene Onegin), Anatoli Kotscherga (Prince Gremien), Valery Gilmanov (Zaretsky) 

The Bolshoi Theatre Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus c. Alexander Vedernikov 

p. & d. Dmitri Tcherniakov d.(costumes) Maria Danilova video director Chloé Perlemuter


BEL AIR Classiques BAC046(2 Discs - 176 minutes) 



Dmitri Tcherniakov, director of both these DVD’s was given his first big break at the Mariinsky, aged thirty, by Valery Gergiev in 2001, who entrusted him with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kitezh, hardly an easy first assignment. His startling take on that piece firmly established him as a major talent; since then his career has spread westward, via the Bolshoi. 


In Khovanshchina, recorded live in Munich in 2007, no vestiges of historicity remain; instead we see present day society in a terminal state of terror and dissolution. The stage is divided into several separate grey areas, like neon-lit aircraft hangars, which ingeniously display the different threads and statuses of the characters in Mussorgsky’s incomplete work. Tcherniakov imposes unity by making the action take place on one day, subtitling the different spaces with helpful aides – naming characters, times and events in the manner of disaster movies, or the cult TV show ‘24’. Two of the uppermost stage areas are devoted to Tsar Peter the Great, and his half-sister, Empress Sophia, both characters that were part of Mussorgsky’s original conception, but were impossible to pass by the censor of that time; these silent presences transform as the opera progresses. Tcherniakov plays fast and loose with history, but Mussorgsky’s muddle does much the same, with inconsistent, even nonsensical characterization and non-linear events. The problem is that the relentless greyness of the design, mitigates clarity and energy and the piece emerges almost as an abstraction. Key scenes seem redundant: why a prolonged political discussion (Act 2) by three princely leaders? All are dressed in various muftis, so the contrast between progressive Golitsin, absolutist thug Khovansky and regressive religious leader Dosifei is not apparent. The (often cut) scene where Marfa is denounced by Susanna, a fanatical Old Believer, is altered into a mini crowd scene, with Susanna’s role divided between three singers. It is difficult to divine intent here as Marfa’s music exudes repose and spirituality, to see her bullied and beaten doesn’t work.  More memorable – and startling – is the Dance of the Persian Slaves, recast here as a harrowing game of Russian roulette between Ivan Khovansky and his serfs. After Peter the Great’s bodyguards (Streltsy) are gunned down (a directorial plot change) the stage boxes retreat in a surprising theatrical coup and the triumphant music (manipulated here) fades, leaving a totally empty stage for the self-immolation of the Old Believers. This is totally static, the chorus and principals stand in terror, ecstasy and hope as a golden light emanates from the orchestra pit and suffuses the auditorium. The opera is capped with Stravinsky’s numinous final chorus – at which point the struggles and carnage of the earlier scenes seem entirely remote and we seem to have been through an experience more to one served up by Arvo Pärt or John Taverner. The opera is given in Shostakovich’s orchestration, but with cuts that resemble (more or less) Rimsky’s edition. Maybe Kent Nagano would have been happier with Rimsky’s orchestration, as his approach is swift, blended and lightweight, not doing justice to Shostakovich’s massive effects and lacking grandeur and spirituality. The cast is strong: Anatoly Kotscherga wields powerful stage presence as Dosifei, no inward cleric, rather a bullying fanatic on a par with the princes. It is a shame his upper register occasionally wavers in intonation, and his moments of stillness are too external, lacking a true sense of line. Paata Burchuladze (Ivan Khovansky) is a deceptively comradely tyrant, making his moments of anger and insanity truly disturbing. John Daszak’s Golitsyn seems vocally ill at ease, and Doris Soffel, with a chest voice worthy of Marlene Dietrich, makes Marfa more a siren than a priestess – her renunciation of the world isn’t convincing. The performance is rapturously received. Might it be that the vast scenic concept does not transfer well to DVD? Certain camera angles, awkwardly taken from the side revealing approaching/departing thighs of the chorus seem to bear this out. There are no extras on the DVD, which is a shame, as anyone coming to the opera for the first time will be lost. I found an interview with Tcherniakov on the Bayerische Staatsoper website which clarifies some things – this should be in the package. There are moments of brilliance here, but it just doesn’t add up – rather like the opera itself.  



Tcherniakov’s 2006 production of Eugene Onegin for the Bolshoi replaced a classic that had been a pillar of their repertoire for sixty years. It gained publicity as the subject of a furious open letter from Galina Vishnevskaya, denouncing it as an act of vandalism and vowing never to set foot in the Bolshoi ever again, even moving her planned 80th birthday celebration from there. This DVD is taken from live performances of the Bolshoi at the Palais Garnier in Paris in 2008, and has, as an extra, a fascinating interview with Tcherniakov and the cast. I’ll put my cards on the table straight up: this production deserves to live another sixty years. Gone are the sequence of interior and exterior scenes. Rather, the action is confined to a large period room, dominated by a long table and chairs, and a chandelier. For the Moscow scenes the same room is transformed into a casino, or a ritzy restaurant. The opening scene, often slow moving, is here totally engrossing, and powerfully evocative. Madame Larina presides at the head of the table, an outsize presence (a tour de force acting performance from veteran Bolshoi diva – and notable past Tatiana - Makvala Kasrashvili) who seems to embody characteristics of both her daughters. The whole family dynamic makes sense in a way that I have never seen, awash in nuance worthy of Chekhov. The big chorus of workers near the beginning, usually presented as a divertissement that is out of scale with the intimate tenor of the work (in fact Stanislavsky and others cut it), is played as an answering contribution by a guest at the table to the opening duet for the Larin sisters –a brilliant solution and packing a powerful emotional and nostalgic punch, giving us a chance to witness the Larin family dynamic. work. Just to see the nurse (Emma Sarkisyan) contain the Larin ladies’ emotional volatility is a masterclass in acting and psychology. Lensky (meltingly voiced by Andrei Dunaev) is cunningly refashioned into an ageing academic, whose passion for Olga is tolerated and made fun of by her from the start, and Onegin is kindlier than usual, but repressed. Even some of the more controversial departures from the text make emotional sense, such as Lensky singing M. Triquet’s poem for Tatiana’s name day, the non-duel, and Tatiana confessing her turmoil to her husband at the opening of the final scene. It all works, because it is attuned to the emotional truth in the music. In short we see a parade of flawed human beings, heightened by being presented as opera – close to ideal I’d say. Tatiana Monogarova is surely as definitive a Tatiana as Vishnevskaya was: a disturbingly awkward presence, commanding stillness worthy of Garbo, with creamy tone and supple phrasing – the letter scene is engulfing. The comments from the performers in the extra say it all: they are all convinced by this revitalization of a Bolshoi chestnut. The DVD direction picks up on as much nuance as it can. Essential viewing for all opera lovers.


© Julian Grant 2009  

Khovanshchina, Mussorgsky


Natalya Tymchenko (Emma), Elena Zaremba (Marfa), Vladimir Galouzine (Prince Andrei Khovansky), Robert Brubaker (Prince Vasily Golitsyn), Graham Clark (Scribe), Nikolai Putilin (Shaklovity), Francisco Vas (Kuzka), Vladimir Ognovienko (Prince Ivan Khovansky), Vladimir Vaneev (Dosifei)

Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu c. Michael Boder p. Stein Winge d. Chloe Obolensky & Claudie Gastine video director Angel Luis Ramirez 


OPUS ARTE OA 0989 D (2 Discs - 192 minutes) 



To attempt to make sense of the epic, but incoherent torso that is Khovanshchina must be some sort of ultimate challenge for any director, and Stein Winge, in a very candid and insightful booklet essay justifies his interventionist approach in realizing this piece for the stage. Any production of this opera tends to be an event, by virtue of its scale and the epic grandeur of its concept and music: this production from the Liceu, Barcelona, taken from two live performances in April 2007 is, like the opera, compelling and unsatisfying in equal measure. Winge updates the action to the 1950’s - as he puts it: ‘the middle of a century full of extreme turmoil in Russia’ -  finding parallels with the age of Peter the Great’s reforms, in which the Khovansky affair is set. Visually this is not distracting; rifles and bicycles being the main accretions. Winge states that he finds the political dimension to the opera the most important, and for him, the boyar Shaklovity ‘becomes the glue that holds the whole piece together’ – he ‘gains this central position because it is otherwise really difficult to create a logical process in the story’. Thus, this protean character, in addition is to being denunciator, assassin, messenger and chronicler of the fate of Russia, is also given the last appearance, silently surveying the scene after the cathartic mass suicide of the Old Believer’s sect after the music has died away. 


It is arguable that an approach yields more inconsistencies than it solves. The astounding – and probably inadvertent – modernity of this opera is that its narrative is not causal. The Russian censor put paid to that with its stage ban on royal personages, so that Mussorgsky’s initial protagonists, Peter the Great and the Empress Sophia have to remain as symbols, in the wings. We meet several high profile and powerfully drawn characters, but as the opera proceeds they do not behave, as one might expect, as dynamic figures out of a Shakespearian chronicle (or from Boris Godunov); they rarely interact or develop as a flesh and blood character might. Instead they seem to exist in separate strata, occasionally colliding, but more often commenting passively and moving on. This is reinforced by Mussorgsky’s musical style in this opera, which departs from the dramatic realism of Boris and relies on a more universal bel canto style which, though steeped in Russian folk-idioms is, crucially, not character-specific. It is problematic that Shaklovity, Winge’s focal point, is musically and dramatically the least consistent of all the characters. This ruthless manipulator, initially so strongly drawn in his denunciation scene with the scribe, becomes, at the centre of the opera, a mouthpiece for one of Mussorgsky’s most conventionally beautiful arias: an aria so impersonal that it could conceivably be sung by any of the characters in the drama, or by none of them. Winge’s attempts to create progress between the acts results in one sequence of musical vandalism - the first half of Act 3 is gutted: about 20 minutes of music disappears. Susanna, the fanatical Old-Believer loses her scene, a rare moment of character conflict and up-tempo music. Granted, there are textual difficulties here, but even Rimsky-Korsakov, in his pared-back version now superseded by Shostakovich, included her.  Worse, the following discourse between Dosifey and Marfa, including one of her most plangent solos, is filleted, so the exposition of the martyrdom idea that leads to the mass suicide in the final scene is glossed over. It also means we hear music for the first time in the closing scene that gains immeasurably in emotional depth as a reprise. Thus Winge’s attempts to patch Mussorgsky’s fabric just result in other seams coming apart.


This said, the production is clear, the chorus is well directed and the single setting, adapted in cunning ways is evocative, and in the final scene, with a vista of birch forest, beautiful. The camera work is unfailingly apt and undistracting, with intelligent use of close-up. Some production ideas distract. The serenity of the famous prelude (Dawn over the Moscow River) is upstaged by a tableau depicting the aftermath of a night of murder by the Streltsy, Peter the Great’s bodyguards. Ivan Khovansky gains a pet dwarf, whom he carries around like a ventriloquist’s dummy, and who becomes the agent of his assassination – not Shaklovity as in Mussorgsky’s scenario, though Shaklovity then inherits him. The updating to the communist era, does make the princes’ continual deferrals to a religious leader, Dosifey, implausible. 


There is promise of a strong cast here, with familiar names from the Kirov’s roster of singers, but in fact, several are not aging so gracefully. Most disappointing is Vladimir Vaneev’s Dosifey: lacking in fanaticism and presence, with too light in timbre for such an imposing and crucial role. Elena Zaremba’s voice now spreads in the middle register, though her many forays below the stave remain sumptuous; still she produces some incandescent quiet phrasing in the last scene. She is certainly a beautiful woman and a versatile actress, for once making sense of Marfa’s erotic entanglement with the wastrel Prince Andrey, here vividly portrayed by Vladimir Galouzine, whose dramatic tenor now sounds almost implausibly baritonal. Nikolay Putilin’s arresting presence as Shaklovity aids the director’s concept of this character being the prime mover and shaker, and he rises well to the declamatory scenes, but he is stretched beyond comfort by the high-lying legato lines of the central lament. Vladimir Ognovienko gives a chilling portrayal of a power mad boor on the edge of madness; the scene where he humiliates his son in public is painful. Robert Brubaker’s Golitsin is suave, sly, pettish and alarming in his sudden losses of control, and well sung to boot. Graham Clark’s Scribe is rather too rough, vocally, and teeters on the edge of caricature. It is the chorus that decisively steals the show, rising to their considerable demands with aplomb, mustering a rich blended mass of tone that sounds authentically Slavonic and acting with thrilling fervour. Scarcely less impressive is the orchestral playing: the conductor Michael Boder paces the treacherous score to perfection and relishes the extraordinary, almost physical bass and brass sonorities conjured up by Shostakovich. 


A new finale is credited to Guerassim Voronkov, an assistant conductor at the Liceu, which is a mite misleading as the vocal portion is identical to Rimsky’s completion, even using his interjections for the three soloists, Marfa, Andrey and Dosifey (also used in Shostakovich’s version). We get a new orchestral postlude omitting the Rimsky/Shostakovich triumphal march representing Peter the Great; instead we hear distant Petrine fanfares and a loud statement of Shaklovity’s Act 3 aria lamenting the fate of Russia. Was this composed expressly to tie up neatly the director’s emphasis on this character, I wonder?  It sounds portentous, with a touch of Hollywood about it; a jarring contrast to the simple directorial solution to the fiery pyre, here tastefully rendered by a white-cloaked cast extinguishing candles and lying down. This tableau would have been better served by Stravinsky’s version, which brought Abbado’s 1989 Vienna production to such a numinous conclusion. The conclusion is unfortunately further marred by Shaklovity’s appearance, after the music has finished, carrying that annoying dwarf - thus undermining what should be one of the most cathartic curtains in the repertoire. 


Despite such reservations, this is a thought provoking experience, well worth hearing for the excellence of orchestra, chorus and conductor and for trying to discern what it was Mussorgsky was trying to convey before the alcohol took over and deprived him, and us, of his vision.   


© Julian Grant 2008  

Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky


Renée Fleming (Tatiana), Elena Zaremba (Olga), Svetlana Volkova(Madame Larin), Larisa Shevchenko (Filippyevna), Ramón Vargas (Lenski), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Triquet), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Eugene Onegin), Sergei Alexashkin (Prince Gremin), Richard Bernstein (Zaretsky) 

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet c. Valery Gergiev p. Robert Carsen d. Michael Levine video director Brian Large 


DECCA 074 3248 (2 Discs - 156 minutes) 



This 2007 revival of Robert Carsen’s ten-year old production was rapturously received in some quarters, with most excitement generated by Renée Fleming’s debut in the role at the Met. While singing with her customary tonal refulgence, she does not seem to be inside the role as yet. Parts are deeply felt, yet lengths in the letter-scene seem unspecific as regards character and emotion. Maybe it is to do with the language, which she does talk about in an involving little behind-the-scenes interview included as a DVD extra, compered (presumably one of her last-ever appearances) by Beverly Sills. Fleming does convince as a young girl and her reactions are most touching when Onegin lectures her, and her placid hauteur in the last act is successful at hinting she is still the same deeply vulnerable and romantic girl as at the opening. The final scene springs to life: she and Dmitri Hvorostovsky really strike sparks, registering all the pain, regret and desperation that this infinitely touching opera can illumine. Hvorostovsky is a natural for this role, charismatic, disdainful and most detailed in reaction; only his over the top hysteria at the end of the St Petersburg ball scene strikes a false note – presumably a directorial idea – as Fleming’s outburst at the climax of the letter scene parallels it, and seems similarly meretricious in the context of a work that seems to thrive on understatement. Vargas sings with ease and splendour, most ardent at the Larin’s ball, but lacks introspection and real desolation in his aria in the duel scene. Nonetheless, the cast acts as an ensemble, with notable cameos from Sergei Alexashkin as Gremin and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as Triquet, and it is a luxury to have Larisa Shevchenko (a powerhouse Lady Macbeth of Mtensk) as a deliciously common-sense Filippyevna. Only Elena Zaremba’s Olga is too mature for a skittish little sister; her friskiness is a bit disconcerting. The production is very pared back for the Met, and I can imagine the bare vistas being striking live – particularly the first act with an evocative carpet of autumn leaves, though the duel scene lacks atmosphere and one sense the performers are left stranded in a vast expanse.  Unfortunately, the size of the Met stage precludes the camera taking in the whole picture; panning and scanning results in an absence of coherence and some close-ups are downright perverse. Why does the camera pull away from Hvorostovsky just as Gremin announces that he is married to Tatyana?   We lose his reaction – and there are many other little moments where the viewer is jolted out of the drama. Gergiev steers an unerring course through the score, revealing much, and the chorus are reasonably focused. A safe choice for an Onegin; most enjoyable, but not quite the great experience the press comments would have you believe. 


© Julian Grant 2008