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S & H Opera Review

Musorgsky ‘Khovanischina’ English National Opera, London Coliseum, January 23rd 2003. (ME)


‘The people groan, and drink to stifle their groans, and groan all the louder: still here!’ wrote Musorgsky, and one could hardly help but connect this ‘people’s opera’ with the current fate of the ENO, still groaning, but still here – whilst at the opulent, lottery-and-otherwise-rich ROH, the gold gleams, the seats sparkle and the usual polished upper crust disport themselves; down here in the lower depths the paint is falling off in clumps, the seats are showing their stuffing and the usual mixed bag loyally slums it alongside the visiting critics on their nights off from being dazzled in Floral Street. All eyes, not to mention ears, were of course on the chorus, which has been threatened with worse than decimation and might perhaps have been tempted to demonstrate in some way: indeed it did, but it was a practical demonstration of exactly why this is one of the great opera house choruses, and one received with an appropriately rapturous ovation.

This chorus has always given us singing of wonderful musicality and subtlety, and on this occasion we were treated to an even more striking demonstration of how it is possible to present the singing of over a hundred souls without turning what is heard in the auditorium into one massive wall of sound. Indeed, so anxious did they all seem to display their skills that they leapt onto the notes a little too fast – nevertheless, whether anxiously demanding the Scribe to read the proclamations to them, or mournfully bewailing the lot of the Old Believers, this was choral singing of the most vital, gripping kind.

This was a typical Zambello production – that is to say, very showy in parts, sometimes relevantly so, mostly lacking in subtlety in terms of relationships between characters, and fairly first-year drama school basic in the movement. That striking revelation of Khovansky in the midst of his horses and flags was the same kind of thing one saw at her recent ROH ‘Don Giovanni’ where the Don is surrounded by flames – all very nice, all very pricey, but not much more than spectacle. The final immolation scene was far more successful – but then, who could not stage it? The whole thing is historically dubious, to say the least, since the Streltsy were not actually pardoned as they are in the opera, but tortured to death, and the main factual incident on which the final immolation scene is based was probably the martyrdom at the stake of the Archpriest Avvakum in 1682: so, purists have little to complain about if a director chooses to depict such things in a distinctive way, and this was certainly the case here – I found the fervid ascent up those spindly ‘ladders to heaven’ quite gripping, and remarkable for the superbly judged lighting, which was the great feature of this staging, admirably avoiding too much gloom in scenes where it might be tempting, and providing a sharp focus for the crowd scenes. Of that bathing – beauty episode, and of Andrey and Marfa’s prolonged farewell, the less said the better.

Willard W. White seems made for the part of Prince Khovansky, and he sang with unremitting power although sometimes his words were indistinct; he suggested all the character’s pride and determination, and he and Tom Randle made a most apt father and son. Randle is an exceptionally versatile singer who is also one of the most gifted actors around at the moment, and it’s always a joy to see and hear him, not least because he is one of the singers who often performs with the ENO and one can thereby imagine that one is seeing a real company, at least from time to time. Robin Leggate is another versatile tenor, one whom I associate with a whole string of roles at Covent Garden – generally small ones in which he nevertheless frequently steals the show with his bright, edgy timbre and highly committed acting, and his Scribe was no exception.

David Rendall is equally natural for his role, that of the cultivated, ‘Europeanized’ Golitsyn – he even has a physical resemblance to the Prince as he is shown in Tarasevitch’s portrait, and he sang with fluid tone and plenty of ringing power when required. I was less impressed by the women: Emma is not much of a role, to be frank, and Claire Weston did what she could with it, not helped by a hideous costume: the Marfa of Jill Grove, making her ENO debut, was dramatically convincing but not always pleasant to hear, especially in the lower registers. She has been singing such roles as Magdalene and First Norn, so perhaps this was a big step for her and she will grow into the part as the run progresses.

John Tomlinson’s Dosifey was, of course, the star of the show: it has to say something about the strength of casting for ENO when two such basses as White and Tomlinson can appear in the same production. The latter’s voice is no longer the seamless instrument it once was; indeed, it now displays a vibrato so wide you could throw a medicine ball through it, but he manages to make this appear insignificant by the sovereign nobility of his characterization and the sheer weighty power of his tone. Every one of his words came through that splendid beard, and his summons to his followers would be enough to raise the dead, let alone persuade them to give their utmost for their faith.

Oleg Caetani appeared to be well liked by this demanding orchestra, and one could see why: he directs with sympathetic understanding of the score, especially in such parts as the lyrical opening music, he allows the singers room to breathe, and he has a firm grasp of Musorgsky’s ‘intelligently justified melody.’ The orchestra played beautifully for him.

Over at the other place, the glitz of ‘Cenerentola’ was given at the same time, whilst here at the Coliseum we experienced yet another example of what makes this house unique: a fairly obscure piece, brought to life with commitment and enthusiasm, sung by a cast who had genuinely got inside their roles, and played to an appreciative and affectionate audience. It cannot be said too often that the ENO deserves the same kind of practical treatment as the ROH, and that if the new management is truly intent upon downsizing it, they will do so at the greatest possible cost to London’s cultural and artistic life.


Melanie Eskenazi


Willard W. White as Prince Ivan Khovansky
John Tomlinson as Dosifey

credit: Clive Barda

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