Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums..., September 2016

…the Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona is conducted by Michael Boder in Stein Winge’s impressive production. The demanding title role is taken by acclaimed Russian bass Vladimir Ognovenko and the opera is sung in Russian, so the natural melancholic tones of the language effectively propel the drama to its tragic conclusion. © 2016 Read complete review

American Record Guide, December 2008

It seems to be the fate of any opera that has politics as a major theme in the story to be "updated" for production. It does not matter in what period the story is set, the stage director and designer see fit to present the opera in modern settings and costume. Sometimes this concept works, but all too often the production turns out to be nothing but expensive Eurotrash.

I am happy to report that in this May 2007 production staged by Stein Winge and designed by Chloe Obolensky (sets) and Claudie Gastine (costumes) for the principal Barcelona opera house completely rejects Eurotrash and, while in modern Russian military uniform and civilian clothing, the production works logically and brilliantly. Even Ivan’s constant companion, a dwarf jester, makes good sense, adding a humanizing element to the prince’s character. Ivan’s assassination is cleverly managed, and Winge’s staging of the impending execution of the Streltsy is brilliant. He realizes the importance of the chorus (representing so many aspects of the Russian people) and gives them plenty to do while they sing.

There are a lot of musicological decisions to be made. Moussorgsky did not finish the opera, but Rimsky-Korsakoff did, making many an editorial change along the way. Moussorgsky was not the most talented orchestrator ever to put pen to music paper, so it makes a lot of sense to use the orchestration by Dmitri Shostakovich, who respected the composer’s intentions. But here the Liceu made a strange decision. Not content with Rimsky-Korsakoff’s meddling with the opera, the Liceu chose to end the production not with the Shostakovich finale, but a new one composed by Guerassim Voronkov. Instead of the Moussorgsky-Rimsky-Shostakovich grand finale, as music for the new generation overwhelms the music of the old, Voronkov’s finale dies away quietly.

The staging reflects the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church. Dosifei brings the fire to the stage in a big bowl. Each Old Believer lights his candle from the bowl (the only lights on the stage) and their deaths are shown as each one in turn blows out his candle, so that light and music vanish simultaneously. It is effective, but a jarring surprise if you were expecting the original grand tableau.

The singing is brilliant, even thrilling. Ognovenko’s Ivan is an arrogant fellow—cruel, wilful, and implacable—sung in a rich, grand manner. As Ivan’s son, Andrei, Galouzine scarcely cuts a romantic or noble figure, but he sings with a voice of iron and determination. Dignity and nobility are left to the firm voices and characterizations of Brubaker (Golitsyn), Putilin (Shaovity) and Vaneev (Dosifei). One always expects a perceptive characterization from Clark, and here, even in an almost nondescript role, he creates a minor masterpiece. Zaremba (Marfa) and Tymchenko offer plenty of high-powered singing and acting as well. The chorus not only rushes and tumbles about the stage, but they sing thrillingly at the same time.

Extras: an illustrated synopsis, a cast gallery, and an interview with conductor Michael Boder.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, July 2008

When Modest Mussorgsky died in 1881 he left behind an unfinished opera, Khovanshchina (The Khovansky Family). The end of act two and the final chorus of the Old Believers existed only as sketches. The assiduous completer of other composers’ work, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, orchestrated and finished Mussorgsky’s manuscript to allow the work to be premiered at the Kononoc Theatre  in St Petersburg on 21 February 1886. It had a run of nine performances but five years later appeared at the Mariinsky Theatre with Chaliapin as Dosifei. In June 1913 it was presented at a theatre in Champs-Élysées in Paris, revised by Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel, but during the next half century it was Rimsky-Korsakov’s version that was played, even though it was criticized on various counts. He made some cuts but he also made changes in the music to make it fit with his own aesthetic. In 1958 Dmitri Shostakovich worked out a new version that goes back to Mussorgsky’s original thoughts. This version has also been criticized and the end of the opera has been rewritten a number of times. When the Finnish National Opera produced Khovanshchina a few years ago conductor Mikko Franck, the present General Music Director of the house, had composed his own end – the present production from Gran Teatre del Liceu employs Guerassim Voronkov’s end.

Irrespective of which version or which ending is used, it is a masterpiece, at least as regards the music. It has the same rugged beauty and power as Boris Godunov, but what after all makes it a flawed masterpiece is the libretto by the composer and Vladimir Stasov. Stage director Stein Winge writes in the liner-notes about the quarrel between the main protagonists Ivan Khovansky, Golitsyn and Dosifei in the second act: ‘The music is very powerful, but their discussion leads to nothing./… /Everything stagnates; it is as though the characters are just emptily calling out, only giving emphasis to their own individual situation …’ It is also a very long work and Winge has in this production cut a couple of scenes because they are not very interesting and to make it more consistent.

The libretto was inspired by old chronicles and deals with the struggle for power between the representatives of the old and new Russia in the late 17th century. The uprising of the Streltsy, led by Ivan Khovansky, has taken place - this happened on 15 May 1682 - and as a result the Tsarevna Sofija has become ruler in the name of her children, Ivan and Peter – later to become Peter the Great. The ideological conflicts are personified by the three main characters. The violent and fanatic Ivan Khovansky, leader of the Streltsy, represents the power of the Boyars and the ‘old’ Russia; Dosifei, leader of the Old Believers, represents the enigmatic non-Europeanized Russia; Prince Golitsyn represents the ‘new’ Russia and influences from the West. Politics, religion and superstition intertwine in this brutal and pessimistic tale, permeated to no little degree by the music of the Orthodox Church.

Stein Winge has transported the drama to the 1950s ‘because it makes no sense to stage a historic Russian production for a non-Russian audience and because we think it helps to focus on the fact that history tends to repeat itself’. He has, however, done so with a cautious hand. There is no real modernizing, the costumes are very little changed from the 17th century until now and the peasants look about the same. There is nothing spectacular about the staging and it wouldn’t fit with the bleak events that are unfolded. The stage is dark, long scenes in a cold blue light, and only Ivan Khovansky and Prince Golitsyn wear costumes with some colour in a couple of scenes. The ballet with the Persian Dances is an exception but this is also intended to be a kind of divertimento. In this production it has a dramatic function by showing other sides of Ivan Khovansky’s contradictory character. The dwarf, whom he carries on his arm like a monkey, is all red, and we understand why when we come to the scene where Khovansky is murdered.

The sense of horror is imprinted on the viewer from the outset when the curtain rises during the orchestral introduction. Red Square is bluish, foggy, soldiers walk about, corpses are hanging from gallows, everything breathes violence, threat. Shaklovity, the Chief of the Police, in black, fur-collared coat and a menacing expression, is the incarnation of tyranny from his first entrance and all through the performance, appearing also in scenes where he has nothing to sing. His shadow looms above all the proceedings. Even in the final scene, after the Old Believers have committed their collective suicide, he walks in and watches the dead bodies. Evil has triumphed. This final scene is utterly moving. The Old Believers, dressed in white, sing their hymn, light their candles and instead of ascending the pyre they one by one blow out the flame and sink to the ground. The music in Voronkov’s version just dies away.

The choruses are central in this opera, as in so many other epic Russian operas, and the singers of the Liceu make honourable contributions in their various guises, even though the women, personifying peasant girls, are a bit sprawling. Michael Boder’s tempos are drawn out, at least compared to the only other recording I have access to, but that is the Rimsky-Korsakov version. The cast is a strong one with Elena Zaremba’s Marfa, one of the great female roles in Russian opera, intense and glowing but unfortunately afflicted by a heavy vibrato that disfigures some of her singing. There is however no mistaking the commitment and the passion in her meeting with Andrei in the final scene. Andrei is fervently sung by the tremendous Vladimir Galouzine, initially a little dry in tone but he soon warms up and becomes his usual mesmerizing self. Vladimir Ognovenko is another hypnotic actor and he makes a vivid portrait of the complex personality of Ivan Khovansky, his irascible disposition. Dosifei is less complex as a character but Vladimir Vaneev still makes him believable in his goodness and he sings with warmth and lyrical glow. His act 5 aria Zdes’, na etom mestye svyatye is truly moving. Nikolai Putilin is a formidably ominous Shaklovity and sings impressively, albeit rather strained in places. As Prince Golitsyn Robert Brubaker is smug and slimy and the rubber-faced Graham Clark is characteristically expressive as the scribe – there are similarities with Mime, one of his great roles.

Gran Teatre del Liceu have produced a number of fine DVDs and this Khovanshchina can be added to that list. There is at least one other DVD version of this opera available, Abbado’s Vienna version with Nicolai Ghiaurov as Ivan Khovansky, which has been highly praised, not least by John Leeman on MusicWeb International, but I was deeply touched by the present issue, which  powerfully delineates the horrifying conflicts that continue to befall mankind.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group