Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond


July 11, 2007

Cast of Kovanschchina
Photo: Wilfried Hosl/Bavarian State Opera 2007

My visit to the Munich Opera Festival wrapped up with the Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production of Khovanshchina, which received one of its two festival performances on Tuesday. Why stay in Munich for this? Well, firstly it was under the baton of fellow (former) Angeleno and LA Opera music director Kent Nagano. Secondly, the chances of seeing a Russian opera in the US outside of Tchaikovsky or Boris Godunov lie somewhere between zero and none given the so-called state of the art. Munich's production of Khovanshchina wasn’t bad, but, burdened with a rather cumbersome and plodding production, it wasn’t what it could have been either.

It was certainly a rather Germanic affair lacking much of a Russian feel, but I suppose that it’s only fair considering the number Mr. Gergiev and his band of homegrown Kirov opera troopers have been doing on Wagner’s Ring throughout the world over the last few years (and which has finally arrived at long last at the Lincoln Center this week). Certainly Mussorgsky is no “Russian Wagner”, but there are beautiful moments in Khovanshchina, many of them involving extended choral passages admirably performed by the Bavarian State Opera chorus with excellent support from Nagano and the house orchestra. Among the principles, of particular note was Doris Soffel as Marfa who was by far the most convincing player. I’ve seen Soffel before in Los Angeles and didn’t think much of her at the time, but here she was on her own turf, apparently, and took off like a rocket. Among the men, Valery Alexejev as Shaklovity was the most engaging as evidenced by the caliber of his performance in otherwise distracting moments such as delivering his major aria in nothing more than a pair of boxers.
Klaus Florian Vogt as Andrei, Camilla Nylund as Emma, and Paata Burchuladze as Ivan Kovansky
Photo: Wilfried Hosl/Bavarian State Opera 2007

However, all of these strong performances had an insurmountable weight to lift in Dimitri Tcherniakov’s staging. Apparently designed as an homage to the FOX TV series 24, the large set consisted of numerous small rooms stacked one above the other where different vignettes played out including some with characters including Tsar Peter and Tsarina Sofia who actually have no lines in the libretto itself. The large gray spaces between these rooms served as convenient places to project the names of characters and the time of the action, which, yes, implied that all the action took place in a single day. All of this didn’t bother me half as much, though, as the almost total lack of color throughout the whole piece. Gray rooms, gray walls, gray costumes. Apparently Russia of the 18th century was more in need of a Benetton Shop than a strong leader. Unfortunately, all they got in the end was a Banana Republic as evidenced by the finale where the schismatics, in preparation for their self-immolation, stripped their kitsch gray Russian garb in favor of lightly colored earth tone separates – perfect this year for everyone headed off to the pyre. I won’t even get into the Knovansky cruelty stuff where he shoots two women after making them crawl on their knees at the start of Act IV before he himself is killed in a political assassination by an elderly woman in a babydoll nightie. But, hey, I’m going to miss their revival of Doris Dörrie’s Planet of the Apes-themed Rigoletto later this month, so having a little anachronism to take with me here is welcome. Anyway, it’s off to London for Dawn Upshaw and Saariaho this week before heading home, so stay posted.


Sorry to read that you saw such a crappy (physical) production of one of my favorite operas of all time, even though the piece really is a dramatic mess. Still, that finale with the True Believers self-immolating at their forest headquarters is one of the greatest scenes in all of opera.

The San Francisco Opera used to have a wonderful production of "Khovanschina" which I saw a couple of times. It was simple, straightforward, and let the piece speak for itself.
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