Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina is a bit of a weird opera. It’s ostensibly based on a series of not entirely related events that unfolded during the succession crisis following the death of Tsar Fyodor III (which took about 12 years to play out) into a story that takes place in a day. It’s complicated by the fact that key players in the story; the Tsars Peter and Ivan and the Tsarevna Sofia don’t actually appear because the Russian censorship would not allow members of the dynasty to be portrayed on stage. Perhaps unsurprisingly Tcherniakov isn’t much interested in the details of the history and uses it to make some, not always entirely obvious, points about modernity vs tradition, personal power and the nature of religious cults.
Dmitri Tcherniakov is an interesting and controversial director. He’s not afraid to take a very radical approach to a work and that method tends to produce uneven results. At it’s best, as in his Berlin Parsifal, it’s extraordinary and sometimes; his Wozzeckfor example, interesting but perhaps not exactly revelatory, and,again, sometimes; as in his Don Giovanni, polarising. That said he never does anything merely to shock or show off. There’s always a logic to what he does and that’s certainly true of his quite radical version of Verdi’s Il Trovatore filmed at Brussels’ La Monnaie in 2012.
Dmitri Tcherniakov’s 2015 production of Wagner’s Parsifal recorded at the Staatsoper in Berlin in 2015 left me emotionally drained as I don’t think I’ve ever been after watching a recording. I can only imagine what it must have been like to experience this live. The combination of the production, exceptional singing and acting and Daniel Barenboim’s conducting is quite exceptional. It’s not going to be easy to unpack it all coherently but here goes…
In 2010 Berg’s Wozzeck was produced in Russia for the first time since 1927. The production, at the Bolshoi, was directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov. Few people familiar with his work will be surprised to learn that Tcherniakov does not see Wozzeck as a down trodden and impoverished soldier. In fact he doesn’t see him as downtrodden and impoverished at all (unlike, say Calixto Bieito who transplants the action to a chemical plant but leaves the power relationships pretty much intact). Rather, Wozzeck is a sort of 21st century salaryman leading a life of modest prosperity but crushing boredom with Marie and their son in a city inhabited entirely by other such families. What’s missing is anything that resembles sensation or “life”.
So, back at the Four Seasons centre last night for a second look at Tcherniakov’s production of Don Giovanni, this time from the Third Ring. I’ve also been thinking and talking a lot about this production both with people who love it and people who don’t. There’s not a lot of middle ground.
Earlier this year the Metropolitan opera staged Borodin’s Prince Igor for the first time in nearly a hundred years with an HD broadcast and a DVD/Blu-ray release to boot. It’s an odd work. It’s quite long; a prologue and three acts running over three hours and it’s very episodic. The prologue takes place in Ptivl; the principality of which I gor is prince. He’s about to lead his army against the invading Polovtsians. There are dark omens. The next thing we see, as Act 1 opens, is that Igor is defeated and a captive of Khan Konchak who’s daughter is now in love with Igor’s son. It’s all just happened. Cue lots of exotic Polovtsiania. In Act 2 we are back in Ptivl where Galitsky is making trouble for his sister, Igor’s wife, who has been left as Regent. Mostly the trouble seems to be drunken partying and when the Polovtsian army arrives at the gates the brother, Galitsky, drops dead. In Act 3 the city has been sacked and everybody is kind of mooning around in the rubble until a pretty depressed Igor shows up and implores the other Russian princes to get off their arses and do something (unspecified). All the important stuff happens off stage and there really isn’t any resolution. There is some great music though.
The Tcherniakov Don Giovanni that I just finished watching on Blu-ray is a Canadian Opera Company co-production so, sooner or later, it should end up in Toronto. That will be interesting. There’s a very conservative streak in the Toronto audience and, especially, among the critics for the major newspapers. These are people who are disturbed by Robert Carsen and go apopleptic over Chris Alden. It will be most interesting to see what the reaction is to something like Tcherniakov’s interpretation, even though it’s not that radical by European standards.