Modest Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina is one of the heftiest operas in the repertoire. With five acts and over three hours of music, it’s as weighty as Mussorgsky’s famous Boris Godunov, and is up there with Tristan and Parsifal among opera’s leviathans. Who apart from the Royal Opera or ENO would attempt such an elephantine task? It belongs to Moscow’s Bolshoi, or Valery Gergiev’s Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, surely?
But no, along comes Graham Vick, who has staged it with a cast of hundreds with his Birmingham Opera Company. Vick has shown, continuely, that you can engage a local community – even the gutsy choir, its director Jonathan Laird told me, was recruited straight off the street – and use them successfully in roles that vitally reinforce the action.
A more motivated cast would be hard to imagine. Vick has already given us his ‘vox pop’ Don Giovanni (‘He had it coming’), a florid weepie La Traviata, Bernstein’s Candide, and Beethoven’s Fidelio. He has had crowds writhing and spitting in that supposedly most ‘difficult’ modern opera, Berg’s Wozzeck, and even had a stab at Stockhausen
With Khovanskygate: a National Enquiry, as Vick dubs this in-your-face modern update, in a scintillating new translation by Max Hoehn – though some of the poetry has got mislaid – now in the bag, is there anything this director dare not attempt?
The drama is magnificently managed – charged, electric, bitter and twisted. Keel Watson is one of Vick’s regulars (Robert Winslade Anderson as Tsar Peter’s murderous adviser is another). What a firm, well-supported bass-baritone he has developed over the years, since dazzling as Fidelio’s villainous Pizarro. As Dosifei, leader of the ‘Old Believers’ (some of the ‘Russian’ context gets airbrushed out, though the aura remains: ‘Homosexuality is a sickness’, ‘Don’t ignore the abortion holocaust’ scream the placards) Watson has power, stature, hypnotic intensity, modesty, and oozes mesmerising spiritual leadership culminating in him leading his defeated followers to a Waco-like mass suicide (donning plastic hoods, an ingenious if colourless solution to the flaming conflagration Mussorgsky prescribes).
The liberal-minded Golitsyn (tenor Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts), stripped and carted off in the white maria epitomising this police state, was another whose words shone like beacons: superb. Baritone Eric Greene, as the right winger ‘The People’s Choice’) whose assassination heralds the bloodbath, postures strongly and characterfully: a believable rival Tsar.
Paul Nilon is the harassed and threatened journalist, who in covering grisly events (shades of the eastern Ukraine today) constantly risks his life; Ben Thapa, former G4 member (and X-Factor runner-up), is a young police recruit, who mints gold every time he opens his mouth. Another tenor, Joseph Guyton, supplied a passionate, wavering Andrei Khovansky. The star of the evening, apart from Laird’s uplifting chorus and Stuart Stratford’s wonderful, brass-enriched CBSO, was prizewinning young contralto Claudia Huckle. What a voice: rich, ringing, poignant – a sound one would travel miles to hear; Khovanskygate’s true soul. Her is a performance to treasure for a long time to come.