Sunday 27 April 2014
Khovanskygate: Utopia, actually
It's been a poleaxing week, in a good way - working backwards, revelatory later Tippett from the phenomenal Steven Osborne and the poised Heath Quartet at the Wigmore last night, an exhausting but instructive and probably unrepeatable double bill of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, with many of the same Russian actors in both, on Thursday - and my introduction to the unique world of Graham Vick's Birmingham Opera Group in the Freedom Tent of the People's Park, Cannon Hill on Tuesday. Courtesy of BBC Radio 3's invitation, it was an evening I hope I'll remember clearly for the rest of my life. All the following production photos are by Donald Cooper.
The Utopia I mean certainly isn't the solution of Musorgsky's Old (here True, in other words religious extremist) Believers, a desperate and far from positive mass suicide. In fact all propositions fail in the world of Khovanshchina, set in a time of troubles in some ways like our own transitional, confused and confusing age, as Vick and his translator Max Hoehn understand so well. No, I'm referring to the possibilities realised in this astounding project, above all the unbelievable success of involving local people of all creeds and colours as chorus and actors and bringing us all as standing, shunted-around spectators to the table of a hopeless debate about the future.
Vick's genius, as I said in a rather stunned aftermath recorded for yesterday's Music Matters (also available as a download for the next month), is to save the ubiquitous contemporary references - now obligatory in both Khovanshchina and Boris Godunov, full of tiresome cliches in Calixto Bieito's world-today production now out on DVD - from being just about Russia now, where as Vick points out the past has become the present again. I did feel, incidentally, that as featured on the neat little Radio 3 survey he was a touch craven in interview to say that Britain is actually worse: let him try living under Putin, rather than just dropping in as he's about to for his second production of War and Peace at the Mariinsky, which will have to steer clear of similar controversy* (I was there in 1991, as Leningrad was turning back to being St Petersburg again, for his first).
It was a coup in every way to field four fine black singers, three basses and a tenor, to make the power struggle more suggestive of America (and even of the Middle East: Joseph Guyton's coke-sniffing, gun-toting Andrey could be modelled on the sons of several bloody-handed tyrants dead and alive). As are the Christian fundamentalists, while the protesting men evoke Occupy and our own deep trouble with the bankers.
The European riot police are believable, but it's hard to imagine our own bobbies behaving so wildly. But the scene where the Streltsy are harangued by their wives is fun until it all goes sour, so why not enjoy a bit of fantasy with that? Of course it's anything but fun when the young Peter I's advisers show their fangs and dodgy liberal Golitsyn is sent into exile, forced to strip off as he and his supporters are hustled into a van by all-too-familiar balaclavaed gunmen. Shame there wasn't a publicity shot of this scene; perhaps it wouldn't serve Vick's impending trip to Russia too well. Another clever touch, incidentally: while the True Believers wear T shirts bearing the slogan 'Not In This World', a 'terrorist' takes off his combat gear to reveal the slogan 'In This World'
All this takes place on at least a dozen acting spaces inside the huge tent. But there are none of the compromises you might expect. As far as I could tell - and I don't know the work inside out - this was a complete performing version of Shostakovich's orchestration concluded by the quieter ending Stravinsky and Ravel put together for Diaghilev in 1913. There were no supertitles and no amplification. There was a full City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on a raised platform, fluently conducted by Stuart Stratford; the brass made such an immediate impact that I guessed without knowing that we were hearing Shostakovich's unmistakeable work, and the opening 'Dawn on the Moscow River' rose slowly out of the hubbub, soon stilled, like the most beautiful of morning mists.
We get no further respite of that sort until the final gathering of the True Believers, with whom we now sympathise even though we know what they've stood for. The gathering apocalypse is also chillingly evoked in Ron Howell's choreography by the perverted sexuality and forced nightclub dancing of far-right leader Ivan Khovansky's failing campaign before his murder
In the earlier stages there's plenty of spirit and humour. I've always been a bit bored by the opening scene until the big bass and tenor Khovanskys appear; not here with Paul Nilon's superlative Scribe-as-hack-journalist. And the meeting of princes with Old Believer Dosifey in Golitsyn's palace becomes a riveting telly debate with humorous touches from Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts, his every word superbly projected.
Often, of course, you don't get the line up of sacred monsters you'd expect at the Mariinsky or Bolshoy, but each fine singer is totally inside his or her role. Guyton (pictured above) shows huge promise as an Andrey Khovansky verging on heroic-tenor territory, and Claudia Huckle's Marfa, seen below with Keel Watson as 'father' Dosifey, plays the confused young girl with some moral sense superbly. Her pianissimos in the final scene draw us in still further. I'm not entirely sure about the final solution, but you can't really have a big fire in a tent.
So I'm not exaggerating when I say that not only have I never seen a more gripping Khovanshchina, I've also never experienced a more involving or singular evening at the opera. And it really is for everybody, as the reactions of all sorts on the way out proved. I hope it's filmed or televised; but if not, then I bear in mind Richard Jones's wise words about his Welsh National Opera Mastersingers - that theatre should by its nature be both ephemeral and unforgettable. Ironic in retrospect, because that production is being revamped for English National Opera next season (as we know from Wagnerians gathered to raise funds at the Coliseum, though the formal press announcement of the 2014-15 season is due early tomorrow morning).
One final footnote, framed by photos from a second protest outside the Barbican before an LSO/Gergiev concert once again orchestrated by that superb tactician Peter Tatchell: I recommend you read my brilliant colleague Ismene Brown's commentary on and translation of an interview with Vladimir Medinsky, Russia's horrifying 'Culture Minister' (my inverted commas) - the same who said Tchaikovsky was not gay. Read more on the sort of creature we're talking about in this 2012 article - a ridiculous individual in a dangerous position of power not to be confused with the even worse new media controller Dmitry Kisilyov, who is famously on camera declaring that gay people 'should be prohibited from donating blood and sperm. And their hearts, in case they die in a car accident, should be buried or burned as unfit for extending anyone's life.'
So Zhdanovshchina beckons all over again, this time with the veneer of democratic vocabulary Putin has already used to lie and manipulate over Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Parallels with Hitler's Germany ludicrously exaggerated? I think not.
*It didn't.GV proved courageous in sticking to his contemporary take, and probably won't work in Russia again. He lent me the DVDs of the production, my impressions of which are here, for my Opera in Depth classes, and came to talk to us about it - an inspiring and, of course, at times controversial speaker.