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Khovanshschina,Welsh National Opera Birmingham Hippodrome .... MUSSORGSKY'S sprawling epic set in 17th century Russia is not a star vehicle, but if one had to be nominated it would be the wonderful WNO Chorus.

In magnificent voice as oppressed peasants, marauding militia and religious martyrs they were the musical bedrock on which the opera was built. It's loose structure was firmly held together by David Pountney's suitably bleak and brutal production, updated to just after the 1917 revolution, and Toma Hanus who conducted the WNO orchestra, always idiomatic in the music's dark colours and stark harmonies, with impressive trenchancy.

The opera's real protagonist Tsar Peter the Great never appears but his invisible hand gradually crushes all his opponents: the rebellious militia of Prince Ivan Khovansky; Prince Golitsin, supporter of Peter's rival to the throne Sophia; and the religious sect of Old Believers.

The ensemble cast were uniformly strong: authoritative Miklos Sebestyen, as the Old Believers' leader Dosifei, was the essence of moral implacability - the perfect foil for Robert Hayward's Khovansky, a twitching, seedy embodiment of corrupting power.

Simon Bailey (Boyar Shaklovity) and Adrian Dwyer (Andre Khovansky) both impressed while Mark Le Brocq's slithery and sarcastic Prince Golitsyn was sharply characterised.

Sara Fulgoni made the difficult role of penitent sinner cum soothsayer Marfa dramatically convincing while Elena Thomas was sensational in the murderously erotic Persian Slave's dance. We heard Shostakovich's realisation of Mussorgsky's unfinished work but using Stravinsky's ending - the Old Believers' hymn as they choose martyrdom - brought the weighty tragic dignity that the "uplifting" Soviet version lacks.

Norman Stinchcombe

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 2, 2017
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