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S & H Opera Review

MUSSORGSKY: KHOVANSCHINA, Opéra Bastille, December 10, 2001 (FC)

One of the least attractive characters in all of opera is Prince Andrei in Modest Mussorgsky's Khovanschina. Here is a guy who is clearly sexually obsessive-compulsive but without the charm and complexity of Don Giovanni. He dumps his saintly fiancé to chase after another skirt. She doesn't want him so he tries to take her by force. He is unconcerned with all the revolution and killing about him, even his father's, annoys the whole of society and never changes his selfish, boorish behaviour, even when being consumed by flames in the last act.

You get some idea of the substantial scope of the casting of this opera at the Bastille that the tenor singing this role is Vladimir Galusin. One of the great dramatic tenors on stage today, he triumphed as Hermann in The Queen of Spades in Paris and London and his recent success at the Metropolitan Opera in New York has put him at the top of every opera director's wish list. He recently sang Otello in Toulouse and will get the full international spotlight in this role at the Orange Festival next summer. In this thankless role, he shines as much as possible and his full-throttle voice is really something to be experienced.

Larissa Diadkova sings Marfa, the cast aside woman who, quite incredibly, loves him to the end. If the name sounds familiar, she is the fabulous mezzo who sings with Renée Fleming the Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin on the "Great Opera Scenes" disk conducted by Solti. She is listed in the program as a contralto, and it is certain that this role exercises the lower register of any mezzo. It is a pivotal role in this opera and it was impressively performed. The wonderful bass Vladimir Ognovenko sang Prince Ivan Khovansky. He is an exceptional singing actor and gave new dimension to his role. The audience applauded most for the role of Prince Golitsin and this was sung by the fine American tenor Robert Brubaker. He impressed greatly in the title role of Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg last month and his intelligent musicality is always especially welcome.

The powerful bass Anatoly Kotcherga, amply handled the role that Feodor Chaliapin loved to sing, Dosifei. Soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya made an impressive debut at the Paris Opera in the role of Emma. Her large and luscious voice easily filled the hall and she made much of this small role. The subsidiary roles were all well sung and the choir warmed up after the first act and sang their important parts with conviction.

This is a sweeping - some might say sprawling - epic of an opera and its five acts make it Wagnerian in length. James Conlon conducted this with the majesty and gravity as if it were Wagner. Only a committed conductor like Conlon could keep the music from flagging and his obvious belief in the score and its beauty won many converts. Andrei Serban's décor was minimal and featured lots of giant angles on stage. Working with set and costumes designer Richard Hudson, he created handsome stage pictures and effective drama on the often-crowded stage. The large variety of costumes for this production was exceptionally impressive. The ballet sequence, to the well-known "Dance of the Persian Slaves," was a confused pastiche of clichés to such an extent that it seemed to be almost improvised by the dancers. Laurence Fanon, the responsible person, failed to meet even the lowered expectations of opera ballet. One would imagine a company with well over 300 years of experience in ballet performance could be doing a better job.

Ballet aside, the combination of exceptional casting and passionate conducting made this opera a significant and welcomed addition to the repertory this season. It is playing at the Opéra Bastille until 12 January and the December 15 performance will be broadcast live by France Musiques.

Frank Cadenhead


(left to right)
Tatiana Pavlovskaya, Larissa Diadkova
and Vladimir Galusin.

photo credit : Eric Mahoudeau

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