It’s Complicated

After obtaining raffle tickets for Prom 29, yesterday we adjourned to the Natural History Museum, swapping one queue for another. At least the queue on the Queen’s Gate side of the NHM moved quite quickly. It’s several years since I have been there, and some things have changed – notably the blue whale skeleton that has replaced “Dippy” – while others have stayed the same. Charles Darwin seemed unmoved. On the whole I felt there could have been more signs saying “Museum” and fewer saying “Shop”, “Cafe” or “Restaurant”.

We found ourselves in the second row of the Arena for Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina. Mussorgsky worked on this opera in the last few years of his life, and it was left incomplete; various hands have, over the years, assembled versions or fragments of it, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel and Stravinsky together, and Stokowski. On this occasion, it was Shostakovich’s orchestration; an interesting choice for him to work on, given that the whole plot is one of political and religious intrigue, and that the first scene features the dictation of a denunciation to a scribe; but he did produce this version during the Khrushchev thaw, so maybe its themes were in vogue, or at least officially acceptable, at the time.

Despite the surtitles – an innovation at the Proms – it wasn’t easy to follow the plot. To be fair, this is intrinsic to the story; knowing more about Russian history doubtless helps. Given Mussorgsky’s original work was written during Tsarist times, I assume the Tsar is Good, and therefore the Boyars are Bad. But it’s not always clear-cut, everyone claims to be reforming against the other lot, and the Priest Dosifey keeps springing up out of nowhere, always with an opinion.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Semyon Bychkov did a good job; to be honest, I only recognised a few fragments, in particular Dawn on the Moscow River from Act 4; but the tragic ending was striking and spectacular. Among a hard-working cast and chorus, I’d single out mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova (Marfa) and bass Ante Jerkunica (Ivan Khovansky) for their particularly strong voices. It was a long concert, and a late journey back, but we were relatively fortunate with the Sunday evening trains.

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