The Moscow theater critic, Alexander Matusevich, writes about "Khovanshchina" in the Astrakhan Kremlin

15.09.2022 14:54
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The Moscow theater critic, Alexander Matusevich, writes about "Khovanshchina" in the Astrakhan Kremlin

Alexander Matusevich is a famous music observer, analyst and the author of numerous reviews, interviews, and articles on opera art.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta

The premiere of “Khovanshchina” marked the tenth anniversary of the project. Another great opera “Boris Godunov” by Mussorgsky started the project a decade ago, and it was followed, in different years, by “Prince Igor”, “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya”, and “Ruslan and Lyudmila” which were performed in the unique architectural complex.

Having seen a great theatrical potential in the Kremlin site, the Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Astrakhan State Opera and Ballet Theater Valery Voronin came up with the idea of the festival, and since the time the first performance of the project was staged, his team has learnt a lot. For example, they learnt to cope with the rear fill and make it sound natural as the Cathedral Square of the Astrakhan Kremlin hasn’t got its own acoustics: this is a common problem for all Russian open-air projects. Otherwise one should rely on the weather – it was only once that the rainy weather was about to spoil the musical festival in Astrakhan. In other cases, they had to guess with the weather. In our climate it is also a kind of art.

But life makes its own adjustments. At first, the pandemic prevented the festival initiative from being realized. And this year, there have emerged some problems with the local eparchy. The Church authorities objected to using the Assumption Cathedral and the Place of Execution, the most picturesque locations of the Kremlin, as the backdrop for the performance. The scenic design of “Khovanshchina”, one of the most “ecclesiastical” operas in the history of the Russian music, had to be turned from the main cathedral and oriented to other visual dominants of that historical place. However, there was some providence in this challenge – the theater brilliantly coped with the difficulties that had arisen, proving that it is able to meet any creative and organizational challenges working at a highly artistic level. The Director Konstantin Balakin and the Theater Designer Elena Vershinina have created the performance which harmoniously combines the historical realities, that are so appropriate in this iconic place.

... Barely had the radiance of the famous introduction to the opera "Dawn on the Moscow River" appeared, when a giant pillar with a gilded double-headed crowned eagle on top was erected on the proscenium; on the one hand, it is a 500-year-old emblem of a large and strong empire, on the other hand, it is a symbol of autocracy and despotism. By themselves, sacramental lines spring to mind: “There is no law in Russia, there is a pillar, and on the pillar there is a crown.”

As the cathedral was not used as a white wall background, another artistic decision was suggested, which, if used as a symbol, may be even more appropriate and significant. It is an image of the Wooden Rus, grown in the impenetrable forests of the Eastern Slavic civilization, which undoubtedly influenced the characters of its inhabitants. The thick woods used as a backdrop, with powerful trunks looking upwards, and then a giant tree in the section - the fanciful bends of annual rings speak about many things at the same time: about eternity, about the connection of times, and also about lives ruined during the periods of change - as the phrase goes, splinters will fly when the axe you ply.

And the tree section also looks like a target: in the finale there will be such signs drawn on the white shirts of schismatics preparing for self-immolation - it is at them that the merciless imperative of Peter's changes aims with its tip. In the scene of the failed execution of the archers, the tree rings will turn into a prison for unsubmissive warriors. Wooden benches, long and red, are abundantly arranged on the stage specially erected for the project – but once they are turned over and put one to another, there emerges an image of the Kremlin wall with crenellations: the princes know well enough how to isolate themselves from the people. And right there, as an eternal reminder and horrification of the serfs, there is a huge wooden rack ...

On the one hand, the historical costumes considerably reflect the epoch; on the other hand, they are not a literal reproduction of artifacts - they are rather an aesthetic fantasy of Vershinina on the themes of the 17th century, where the proportions and color schemes are subtly observed, and the silhouettes are formed. And all this beauty is skillfully illuminated by Irina Vtornikova, who has been working in the Astrakhan Kremlin not for the first time - her precise lighting range gives the necessary volume and places accents, delicately contributing to Balakin’s directing, who can both stage crowd scenes and brilliantly form a close-up in conditions of great distances, when all the attention of the public is drawn to the main thing.

The Russian Grand Opera, maybe the most Russian one, without any romantic embellishments, with its unvarnished “barbaric” consonances, is performed by the theater in Shostakovich’s version – the delicate cuts necessary in condition of an open-air show are almost invisible, they do not prevent from perceiving the musical drama in all its integrity. The vocal parts are performed mainly by the local artists, and they are performed with a very decent quality - the beautiful voices of Tatiana Chupina (Marfa), Roman Zavadsky (Andrey), Sergei Mankovsky (Golitsyn), Vadim Shishkin (Dosifey), Sergei Taranenko (Shaklovity) and others create effective tension, growing from scene to scene. The singers Andrey Zorin (Podyachy) from the Mariinsky Theater and Nikolai Kazansky (Khovansky) from the Bolshoi Theater contributed to the magnificence of the ensemble. The work of the orchestra and the chorus is beyond all praise –performing under the baton of Voronin they sound powerful and vivid, and accurate and expressive at the same time: you can hear Mussorgsky’s music performed with a genuine scope and emotional twist.

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