Welsh National Opera’s new season (commemorating the centenary of the 1917 Revolution with three Russian-themed works) opens with both a bang and a whimper with this trenchant revival of Khovanshchina, which closes with a scene of such desolation that the richly deserved applause which greeted it on opening night felt almost apologetic. Mussorgsky’s unremittingly bleak treatment of the power-struggles between the Tsars Ivan and Peter (unseen due to the censorship regulations in place at the time of composition), the opportunistic Khovanskys and the Old Believers was never going to be an easy or uplifting night in the theatre, but in the hands of David Pountney and WNO’s new musical director Tomáš Hanus it’s a stark and spellbinding one.

Miklós Sebestyén (Dosifey) © Clive Barda
Miklós Sebestyén (Dosifey)
© Clive Barda

Now ten years old, Pountney’s production transplants the action from the late 17th century to the immediate aftermath of the 1917 Revolution, with bleak constructivist sets by Johan Engels and a predominantly red and grey palette which invokes the Soviet propaganda of the early 20th century. As before, the score (unfinished by Mussorgsky at the time of his death) is presented in Shostakovich’s orchestration from 1958, with Stravinsky’s harrowing final scene depicting the mass suicide of the Old Believers; this time around, though, the opera is given in Russian rather than the English translation of 2007, with appropriately blunt surtitles by Hedd Thomas.

The WNO Chorus © Clive Barda
The WNO Chorus
© Clive Barda

Pountney’s great triumph is the almost Brechtian detachment with which he presents this gallery of equally flawed characters, from the opening encounter between Adrian Thompson’s weaselly, self-serving Scribe and the thuggish Streltsy (Khovansky’s private army of heavies) through to the great confrontation-scene between Mark Le Brocq’s smarmy decadent Reformer Golitsyn, Miklós Sebestyén’s sonorous Dosifey (the leader of the Old Believers) and Robert Hayward’s brutishly charismatic but visibly degenerate Ivan Khovansky – this latter a masterly depiction of corrupt authority which made me ache to hear him as Boris Godunov. Australian tenor Adrian Dwyer also gives a career-defining performance as his venal son Andrei, singing with real blade and incisiveness, and as repellent in his early mistreatment of the two women in his life as he is sympathetic in his final agonising journey to the place of execution.

Sara Fulgoni (Marfa) © Clive Barda
Sara Fulgoni (Marfa)
© Clive Barda

The women in this opera can run the risk of seeming ancillary: Mussorgsky had learned from his experiences with Boris Godunov that a predominantly male cast without any love-interest to leaven the political power-struggles at play doesn’t make for great box-office, but the two principal female roles can come across as over-written and ill-defined in one instance and one-dimensional in another. Thanks to the astute direction and unflinching commitment of the two female antagonists, one barely notices that here. The magnificent Sara Fulgoni brings a Kundry-like physicality to the liminal, shadowy role of Marfa, the mystical ‘fallen woman’ who eventually allies herself with the Old Believers and acts as both prophetess and redemptress of sorts: sounding completely at ease in the lower register which Mussorgsky mercilessly exploits, she’s mesmerising in the long incantation-scene in which she foresees Golitsyn’s banishment and in the fireside erotic reveries about her former lover Andrei which earn the ensure of the hieratic Susanna (Polish soprano Monika Sawa, blistering and imperious), two scenes which can easily outstay their welcome in lesser hands. The last of the Old Believers to lose consciousness during the final immolation-scene, she’s as compelling in stillness and silence as when pouring forth imprecations and invocations.

Robert Hayward (Khovansky) and Elena Thomas (Persian Slave) © Clive Barda
Robert Hayward (Khovansky) and Elena Thomas (Persian Slave)
© Clive Barda

Claire Wild is hardly less absorbing in the smaller role of Emma, the Lutheran girl who supplants her as the object of Andrei’s lust (‘affections’ is hardly the word here, given that his pursuit of her is presented as unambiguously abusive and ugly), whilst choreographer Beate Vollack delivers a tour de force of unsettling virtuosity for Elena Thomas' Persian slave (singular in this production) who diverts Khovansky in his final hours with an extreme lap-dance that reaches its brutal apotheosis with her naked and blood-smeared astride a wrecking ball. Miley Cyrus (whose notorious music-video along similar lines post-dates the original production by five years) has nothing on this.

But the real glory of this production is the WNO Chorus, sounding absolutely idiomatic in Mussorgsky’s self-destructive drinking-songs and in particular the glorious hymnic writing at the close of Act 3, which could scarcely be bettered by the forces of the Mariinsky Theatre for baleful sonority.