Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938)

Feodor Chaliapin painted by Boris Kustodiev (1878-1927) 1922

Last weekend I went to Vienna to see a performance of the opera Khovanschina by Modest Mussorgsky. It’s an opera I’m always keen to track down. The music and the story are very powerful but apart from that I’m always intrigued to see how the final scene will be presented on stage. A scene where a community of Old Believers martyr themselves in a burning church rather than give themselves up to be slaughtered by the czars troops. Not an easy thing to stage.

I had great hopes for this production as it was directed by Lev Dodin. But despite a set made of charred timbers, no ‘coal effect fire’ lighting was attempted and no wind machine blown red silk used. And the protaganists and chorus were slowly lowered below stage, not raised to heaven. Apart from that the singing was great and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra conducted by Semyon Bychkov sounded wonderful.

Another plus was an English language programme where I came across this quote from Chaliapin ‘As a composer, Mussorgsky sees and hears all the scents of a garden or a tavern, and describes them so strikingly and persuasively that the audience finally hears and shares those aromas… That is realism, to be sure, but a realism of a special kind, such as we are familiar with from Russian peasants who with plain timber and simple axes build a church whose artistic ornamentation surpasses even the best inlaid work.’

 

The Church of St Nicholas, Purenema, Archangel Region, July 2012

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