Pushkin – the opera
Konstantin Boyarsky & Marita Phillips
Orchestra and Chorus of Novaya Opera, Jan Latham-Koenig
Grange Park Opera, West Horsley Place, 12 July 2018
We all have a great many great-great-great grandparents, but few of us are able to write an opera about two of them. Marita Phillips is one such, a descendent of the scandalous elopement and 1891 marriage between the grandson of Tsar Nicholas I and the granddaughter of Pushkin. Pushkin and Nicholas were born within 3 years of each other in 1796 and 1799 respectively. While exiled by Nicholas’s father, Tsar Alexander I, for writing the poem Ode to Liberty, Pushkin wrote Boris Godunov and Eugene Onegin. Ode to Liberty was seen as influencing the 1825 Decembrist Uprising that followed Nicholas’s unexpected appointment as Tsar, creating an uneasy relationship between the two men, at the core of this opera, which opens with the gruesome nooses that followed the Decembrist Uprising.
Written over an astonishing 15 years period, the story covers key aspects of Pushkin’s life in and around the court of Nicolas I, with an emphasis on the complex relationship with his wife Natalia Goncharova. She was around 13 years younger than him. They met when she was just 16, and already a renown beauty. She attracted the attention of the sumptuously monikered Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Anthès, the adopted son of the Dutch Ambassador. The relationship between the two was open to some discussion, leading in Phillips’ text to the accusatory question of “buggery or incest”. Perhaps unfortunately, this question was reinforced by the fact that Georges d’Anthès looked remarkably like outrageously camp Mr Humphries from the 1970s television sitcom Are you Being Served, making his later attraction to Natalia a bit of a surprise. He pursued Natalia to the extent that a duel between him and Pushkin, leading to Pushkin’s death, his depiction as the ‘white wolf’ predicted by the exotic character of the gypsy.
The text and story development gave me the impression of having been originally intended as a stage play, rather than an opera. Several sequences of Russian (Pushkin’s works), all translated in (awkwardly high) surtitles were incorporated into the English text, the standard of English pronunciation ranging from excellent (by the only British singer) to good for Russian singers who probably do not sing much opera in English.
The music was written by Konstantin Boyarsky, a professional viola player at the Royal Opera House whose family came from Russia to the UK in 1990. A largely self-taught composer, he has clearly absorbed a very wide range of Russian music into his own, not yet distinctive, musical style. Making use of clever and well-judged orchestrations and use of instrumental colour, notably from the low woodwind, the music was on rather too many occasions too derivative, creating a rather fun ‘spot-the-style’ game, at least for me. Most Russian composers from Tchaikovsky onwards were represented, with the percussive style of the likes of Shostakovich and Prokofiev dominating, notably in the first Act. The music occasionally got perilously close to, but fortunately never crossed over into, the style of West-End musical theatre, but there was certainly more than a little veering towards film music, notably in the extended overture to Act 2.
The singing was impressive. The cast was led by the British tenor Peter Auty as Pushkin, someway removed from his early success as the original boy treble in Walking in the Air from The Snowman. Natalya and her two sisters were sung by Julietta Avanesyan (pictured above, with Pushkin), Irina Romishevskaya, and Anna Sinitsyna, all impressive, particularly in their frequent scenes together. High tenor Anton Bochkaryov was the Mr Humphries lookalike as George, his blonde locks and white suit making his becoming the eventual ‘white wolf’ inevitable. Baritone Artyom Garnov was a suitably austere Tsar Nicholas I, with Yaroslav Abaimov as the Dutch Ambassador Baron Heckeren. The excellently sung and acted Gypsy (pictured below) was either Maria Patrusheva (Grange Park website) or Gayane Babadzanyan (Grange Park programme book).
The orchestra of the Novaya Opera Theatre of Moscow were very impressive in what could have been a rather complex score. My only gripe was with what sounded very much like a digital piano. I was rather less impressed with the vast Novaya chorus, on account of a few distinctly wobbly sopranos amongst what was otherwise some good chorus singing. Incidentally, the soloists were generally devoid of the curse of operatic vibrato, making the music clear and focussed.
The staging (by director Igor Ushakov) was very effective, not least because of the speed of movement between the sections, with little or no scenery to get in the way. The duel between Pushkin and Mr Humphries was well done, although the image of the gunshots being accompanied by very effective bursts of smoke from the whole of the assembled chorus was slightly compromised by the subsequent wafts of a very recognisable baby powder. It could have been done in a more simple manner, so to speak.
There was little information in the Grange Park Opera programme book, suggesting that this was a two-night add-on to their 2018 programme. It must have taken some funding and organisation to get around 150 musicians over from Moscow, most of the work apparently being down to the librettist Marita Phillips. Whether by design or not, it was perhaps telling that the opera was given in first fully staged performance just a few days before the 100th anniversary of the murder of the last of the reigning Romanovs in Yekaterinburg. The last line of the opera comes from the Gypsy with the curse on Tsar Nicholas I: “I curse you and all who follow you. The house of Romanov will die and you – you will be remembered only as the Tsar who lived at the time of Pushkin.”
Whatever its possible shortcomings that might have been exposed had it premiered in another place, it was very well received by the audience.