CLASSICAL MUSIC / Suicide brings house down

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The Independent Culture
SOME things do not translate. There is no agreed Western spelling for Musorgsky (Mussorgsky? Moussorgsky?); no precise English equivalent for the title of his opera Khovanshchina (The Khovansky Affair? The Khovansky Mess?); and no easy route for a non-Russian audience through the epic discontinuity of its narrative - if, indeed, you can describe as narrative a pageant in six scenes that bears no story but the burden of the Russian soul through history. For good reasons this solemn, grand but problematic work is rarely seen in Britain.

But ENO has a new production, conducted by Sian Edwards and staged by Francesca Zambello, the American director with a track-record for successful handling of epic history. And if the result at Thursday's opening night was not an unqualified triumph, it came close: especially in the later scenes when energy picked up and erupted - no other word for it - into an aural and visual climax of breathtaking power. The final tableaux of mass suicide brought down not just the curtain but the house.

But the end of Khovanshchina is a question mark: director and conductor have to ask themselves what sort of opera this is. They don't get much help from the original score, which Musorgsky didn't finish. There was no pre-existing libretto, the text evolved with the music; and Rimsky-Korsakov's comment that ''none of us understood the real subject'' comes from the man who assumed the task of completion. If he didn't know . . .

Broadly speaking, the tableaux of Khovanshchina depict the emergence of modern Russia, in the person of Peter the Great, out of the political turmoil of the 17th century. Peter does not appear: the Tsarist regime of Musorgsky's time did not allow dramatic portrayal of members of the Romanov dynasty. So the action, such as it is, centres on the intrigues of his opponents, who conveniently wipe each other out in a textbook illustration of Divide & Rule. Musorgsky's characters blend fact with fiction, and he invents a notional love interest as a sort of fixing gel for the piece. But Khovanshchina is less a drama of individuals than an essay on the fateful forces to which individuals are subject. Musorgsky talked about ''the power of the black earth'', and his response to it seems to have been akin to the pessimism of Wagner and Schopenhauer's surrender to the Will. He takes no obvious side within the conflicts he presents.

But Rimsky-Korsakov did, adding a coda to that grim concluding scene of corporate suicide to herald the (off-stage) arrival of Tsar Peter ushering in a new dawn of enlightenment. And when Shostakovich made a further version of the score in the 1950s, socialist realism dictated that an optimistic coda should remain. Shostakovich's version is, despite a few anachronisms, generally regarded as the best, and it's what you hear at ENO.

But ENO has ditched the coda. Pessimism is restored; and so, in Ms Zambello's towering production, is neutrality. Angels and villains are dispensed with; and she rescues the result from greyness with a strong, uncluttered staging (apart from a skeletal iron-framed module, carefully massed people are the chief props) and by upgrading the identifying qualities of the central roles: the rugged Russian virility of Willard White's Khovansky; the Western sophistication of Kim Begley's Golistyn; the Old Testament authority of Gwynne Howells's Dosifey.

The true heroes of this production, though, are the chorus and orchestra who carry its often massive weight with great style. And they share the credit with Sian Edwards who has needed a success of this order since she arrived at the Coliseum. If nothing else, she had to live up to ENO's claims for her as a Musorsgky specialist who studied this score in depth in Russia. It was make or break. And, after an over-careful start, she made it, loading all the power of the black earth that anyone could ask for into the darkness of those last scenes.

Like ENO, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival has been in epic mode, reminding its audiences that ''contemporary'' embraces not only ink-wet scores from new composers but established works such as Karlheinz Stockhausen's Momente which had a truly spectacular performance last weekend. Momente is a sort of 1960s happening, a fact which the performers - four separate choruses, instrumentalists from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, soprano Angela Tunstall and conductor Jonty Harrison - acknowledged by trooping on in silly clothes. There is an element of theatre in the piece, so it was all right. But the ambition of Momente extends beyond period charm. Stockhausen never did write small works: every one is a Mahlerian effort to compose the world, combined with a megalomania that places Stockhausen at the world's centre. Momente does just that, and celebrates - ecstatically and spatially - the idea of Love with a musical structure which reflects what ''Love'' meant to the Stockhausen household of the 1960s: an unresolved triangle between Karlheinz and his successive wives, Doris and Mary. The ''moments'' from which the score takes its title are identified by the initials K, D and M. Issues the composer failed to sort out in real life are hereby transferred to music where the dramatis personae are more manipulable.

With or without its subtext, Momente is an awesome work, absorbing a universe of disparate material from biblical texts to gibberish noise, from joy to terror, from the sublime to the absurd. The effect is evangelical: it feels like an American fundamentalist revival meeting, amplified. And after a central performance from Angela Tunstall unstinting in its stamina and virtuosity, the only thing it lacked at Huddersfield was members of the audience coming forward with discarded crutches. An uplifting, rather dangerous experience.

- 'Khovanshchina': Coliseum, 071632 8300, six more performances.

(Photograph omitted)