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Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina Revisits the Met after 13 Years

Anatoli Kotscherga as Ivan Khovansky in Mussorgsky's €œKhovananshchina.€  Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Anatoli Kotscherga as Ivan Khovansky in Mussorgsky’s €œKhovananshchina.€ Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Metropolitan Opera House
March 13, 2012

Modest Mussorgsky/Dmitri Shostakovich/Igor Stravinsky—Modest Mussorgsky

Ivan Khovansky – Anatoli Kotscherga
Andrei Khovansky – Misha Didyk
Marfa – Olga Borodina
Dosifei – Ildar Abdrazakov
Golitsyn – Vladimir Galouzine
Shaklovity – George Gagnidze
Scrivener – John Easterlin
Emma – Wendy Bryn Harmer
Susanna – Maria Gavrilova
Kouzka – Mark Schowalter
Strelets – Paul Corona
Strelets – Jeffrey Wells
Varsonofiev – David Crawford
Streshniev – Michael Todd Simpson
Servant – Jeffrey Mosher

Conductor – Kirill Petrenko

Production – August Everding
Set designer – Ming Cho Lee
Costume designer – John Conklin
Lighting designer – Gil Wechsler
Choreographer – Benjamin Millepied
Stage Director – Peter McClintock

Even if the performance had not been as great as it was, we both, as newcomers to Khovanshchina, would have left the Met in a state of uncritical awe. Mussorgsky’s historical tragedy, although the composer left it unorchestrated and unfinished at his early death, leaving a great deal of work for others, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich in their separate efforts, has all the potency the greatest music and the most powerful human drama can lend it—all within a setting of the grandest spectacle. As the Met presented it earlier this month, its four and a half hours sped by, as we followed the hopeless and ultimately disastrous adventures of key players of various factions in the unstable years of Peter the Great’s minority. Even Mussorgsky’s finished opera, his acknowledged masterpiece, Boris Godunov, does not leave us with such an overwhelmingly cathartic effect as the inexorable succession of assassinations, executions, and suicides with which Khovanshchina concludes. Mussorgsky, who wrote the libretto as well as the music, seems to have captured the tragic essence of history in it. There was a specific reason why the final effect of the Met performance was so moving, but to explain it, a little background is in order.

Mussorgsky conceived Khovanshchina in 1872, just as he was finishing the full score of Boris Godunov. His plan, inspired by the celebrations of the bicentenary of Peter’s birth that year (or rather by his friend Vladimir Stasov’s interest), was to write a grand historical opera based on the political chaos which led up to Peter the Great’s accession to the throne. Although Mussorgsky had received a special dispensation from the reigning Tsar Alexander II which enabled him to include Boris Godunov in his opera (It was strictly forbidden to show a Romanov on stage.), he seems to have planned his next opera around the figure of Peter, rather than attempting to include him in it. Rather than following a literary source, as he had Pushkin’s long-suppressed play on Boris Godunov, he decided to create his own libretto from scratch, basing his story directly on historical sources. He began with a compilation of documents and notes, and proceeded to piece the libretto together as a patchwork over the following years. He did not make a fair copy of his text until the end of the decade, and then seemingly as an aid to help him put his ideas together on the completed form of the opera. Parts of the libretto still remained unfinished. As he carried on with Khovanshchina, he paused to work on other projects and was periodically given to alcoholic interludes. At his death from alcoholism in 1881, he left behind an incomplete, largely unorchestrated score in no coherent order. His friend Rimsky-Korsakov took on the task of putting Khovanshchina and other works into a performable state, notoriously making his “improvements” as he edited them.

George Gagnidze as Shaklovity and John Easterlin as a public scribe in Mussorgsky'€™s €Khovananshchina. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

George Gagnidze as Shaklovity and John Easterlin as a public scribe in Mussorgsky’€™s €Khovananshchina. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

The title, Khovanshchina, which means the “Khovansky Affair” (or to some, the “Khovansky Mess”), refers to the Streltsy Uprising of 1682, when the Streltsy, a hereditary regiment of marksmen founded by Ivan the Terrible, took sides in the rivalry between the families of the two wives of the recently deceased Tsar Alexis I, joining the faction which opposed the crowning of the then ten-year-old Peter (who was later known as Peter the Great). The Streltsy took over the Kremlin, which was their charge to guard, executed their commanders and other boyars, killed Peter’s cousins, and encouraged the poor to riot and loot in the streets of Moscow. The result was the regency of Sophia Alekseyevna, sister of the rival Tsars, in which Peter became a secondary ruler under his half-brother Ivan. Ivan Andreyevich Khovansky, an ambitious boyar who was one of the Streltsy’s leaders, after whom the series of events is named, was initially Sophia’s supporter, turned against her, hoping to take her place as regent. In this he had the support of the Old Believers, a schismatic sect who refused to accept the reforms of Patriarch Nikon (1653), which attempted to unify the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches. Sophia had to flee the Kremlin, but she finally succeeded in putting down the uprising with the aid of Fyodor Shaklovity. Her primary advisor and agent was Prince Vassili Golitsyn. Sophia’s reign continued until 1689. A later attempt by the Streltsy to take control in 1698 was brutally suppressed by Peter himself.

Mussorgsky’s opera is about this period of unrest leading up to the reign of Peter the Great, who is credited with creating the modern Tsarist state and westernizing Russia. Against this bloody historical backdrop Mussorgsky brought together the leading interests in the struggle, which comprehended the main issues of the time and which lingered on into his own time as part of Russian identity: the power of the nobility versus the power of the Tsar, traditional belief versus religious reform, Europeanization, as opposed to eastward-looking isolation. He embodied the issues in the leading figures in his story: Khovansky the Boyar, an Old Believer, who led the rebellion, the westernized Prince Golitsyn, and Dosifei, the spiritual leader of the Old Believers. Because of the ban on portraying the Romanovs on stage, Peter and Sophia must operate in the background. All these players believed they were doing the best for Russia, but Russia only suffered the more because of their activities. To represent Russian herself, Mussorgsky invented the rather mysterious figure, Marfa, an Old Believer, who is engaged to Khovansky’s son, Andrei. Clairvoyant, but helpless, Marfa must endure the neglect of Andrei, her attempted murder by Golitsyn, the imprecations of Susanna, a nun, up to her final self-immolation with Andrei, Dosifei, and other Old Believers. Hence there is no single figure around whom all the action revolves, unless it is Peter, who never appears on stage.

Golitsyn, Dosifei, and Khovansky Convene. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Golitsyn, Dosifei, and Khovansky Convene. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Mussorgsky unfolded this complex narrative in six scenes, which he never put together in a definitive form himself. He never finished two crucial scenes, including the final chorus of the Old Believers, as they prepare for death. The two most prominent editors of the Mussorgsky’s material, Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich, each for his own reasons, recycled earlier passages to tie the structure up in a coherent way to give the opera an uplifting message, hinting at progress and Peter the Great’s contribution to Russian civilization. This optimism seems hardly in accord with Mussorgsky’s known views and the tragic weight of the events in the plot, and the Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich conclusions seem not to have done much for the opera’s hold on audiences. By contrast, Igor Stravinsky, in preparing—with Maurice Ravel’s assistance—a version for Diaghilev’s Paris premiere in 1911, omitted Rimsky Korsakov’s brass choirs in the final bars and ended the opera simply with the fading-out of the Old Believers’ hymn in the night. The Met had the wisdom to follow Claudio Abbado’s example and use this conclusion—for the first time—along with Shostakovich’s version, which is now the standard, for the rest of the opera. The power of Stravinsky’s brilliant solution was overwhelming. While we must first hope that the Met will not wait another 13 years before bringing this great opera back, we must also hope that they will retain the Stravinsky ending, which realizes the full impact of Mussorgsky’s creation.

Olga Borodina as Marfa and Ildar Abdrazakov as Dosifei in Mussorgsky's €Khovananshchina. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Olga Borodina as Marfa and Ildar Abdrazakov as Dosifei in Mussorgsky’s €Khovananshchina. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

This is only the fifth season in which the Met has offered Khovanshchina. This production, created by August Everding with sets by Ming Cho Lee and costumes by John Conklin dates back to 1985, the second of those seasons. As directed by Peter McClintock, the production was full of life, relevant and significant dramatic interaction the singers could relate to (in other words, no Regieoper), and, most important of all, the story was clear. With the help of Met titles (as useful in this case for Roza, who is a native Russian-speaker, as for Michael, who is not) it was easy to follow the chain of events—no mean feat, since a different character dominates each of the six scenes and the events, or at least their historical originals, are spread out over several years. The first of these, as gripping as it is, remains somewhat indirect in its approach to the main points of the story. A timorous public scribe occupies the foreground in its first part. Shaklovity, who will assassinate Khovansky in Scene Four, introduces the main story line by dictating a clandestine letter to Tsar Peter, reporting that Khovansky and his son Andrei are leading a rebellion to depose him. A group of visitors to Moscow ask the scribe to read the proclamations posted before the Kremlin to them, but, in his fear, he tries to avoid this. But the people learn of the Streltsy’s rampage of murder and looting and lament the fate of Russia—whereupon Khovansky makes his entrance and states his cause. He then leaves and the crowd disperses. This is followed by an interlude in which his son Andrei enters chasing a girl, Emma, from the German Quarter of the city in an attempt to rape her. His former fiancée, Marfa, enters, and rebukes him. Khovansky père returns, to thwart further his son’s licentious designs, and orders the girl to be taken to the palace. Dosifei then enters and turns Emma (who is later sent back to Germany and never plays a further role in the story) over to Marfa’s care. Exeunt Khovanskys, while Dosifei prays for help and protection. We have met all the principal characters but one in this scene, but in ways that address their psychological and metaphysical roles more directly than their future deeds. It is especially to Mussorgsky’s credit that this all hangs together, but its well-blocked presentation on stage greatly clarified it.

This August Everding production may be over 25 years old, but it is more than serviceable, in fact truly excellent and just what Khovanshchina needs. Ming Cho Lee’s sets are handsome in themselves and provide a solid, clearly organized foundation for Everding’s complex, vividly realized action, often involving a sizeable chorus and crew of supernumeraries. The Streltsy Quarter in Scene Three perhaps seemed a little bare, as set up on stage, and it was impossible to see Khovansky’s entrance at the right from a seat on the right side of the right aisle of the orchestra, but that could be easily fixed. Red Square, Khovansky’s residence, and the final scene in the forest were all magnificent. In other words, the Everding production should serve this great opera for a few more revivals, especially if it will encourage the Met to perform it more often. It also offers a welcome respite from the current trends in production. I can’t imagine many of the Met’s recent directors who would be interested in putting the opera before themselves, as Everding and Lee did. If Stephen Wadsworth were to keep his mannerisms in check, say… or Patrice Chéreau, oddly enough, after his deeply humane production of Janácek’s From the House of the Dead, would seem the most promising possibility.

Khovansky watches his Persian slave girls dance (choreography by Benjamin Millepied). Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera/

Khovansky watches his Persian slave girls dance (choreography by Benjamin Millepied). Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera/

I should add that the production did have at least one fashionable 21st century addition in the form of Benjamin Millepied’s choreography for the dance of Khovansky’s Persian slave girls. This was superb dancing in itself, and we were both impressed with it, although it did nothing to evoke either the period of the story or the period of the opera. More importantly, perhaps, the black and grey costumes and the sophisticated mixture of sexuality and solemnity presaging Khovansky’s death made it a seductive addition to Everding’s original production.

Another reason to revive Khovanshchina soon would be to take advantage of the superb, mostly Russian, Georgian, and Ukrainian cast the Met has assembled for this year’s run of six performances. The only real shortcomings either of us could notice were in the Russian of the non-Slavic singers, including the chorus, who otherwise sang magnificently. Roza found it difficult to understand what they were singing, more because of their accentuation rather than false vowel sounds. Mussorgsky’s feeling for the Russian language is especially admired as well as the intelligence with which he approached setting it to music as a consciously thought-out process. His attempts to achieve a natural delivery in recitative and his efforts to balance that with a more arioso style are well-known. The conductor, Kirill Petrenko, seemed to take special pains not to let musical phrasing and the pulse of the orchestral accompaniment distort the natural rhythms of the language. Hence there was a kind of plainness in the sung lines which gave the singers a great deal of scope in exploiting the qualities of the language and using it as an expressive instrument—which is not to say their melodic shape suffered in any way. Early in Scene One, John Easterlin, although his Russian diction, Roza found, left much to be desired, made a vivid impression on the audience with his ringing, richly colored, but brilliant tenor voice, with which he produced strongly shaped melodic lines over a lively characterization of the craven, low-born Scrivener. His words may not have been perfectly Russian, but his characterization of this typically Russian comic figure certainly passed. The Georgian baritone, George Gagnidze, balanced Shaklovity’s role as a desperate Intrigant and furtive villain, with strong singing in a dark timbre. Misha Didyk, from Ukraine, gave a forceful performance as Andrei Khovansky, singing with a bright tenor voice with interestingly colored low and middle registers. He made the character all the more intriguing by giving him an energy which seemed to belie Andrei’s weak, impulsive actions.

Vladimir Galouzine, the Russian tenor, sang Golitsyn with great style and subtlety in his acting. Golitsyn is an especially complex role among many complex, ambiguous characters in the opera, and he was fully equal to the forward-thinking European, worried courtier, ruthless murderer, and victim in him.

The great Russian mezzo Olga Borodina gave a classic performance as Marfa, a part which is only slightly less many-sided than Kundry in Parsifal. Her voice has both the glowing top and satin lower registers to bring any expressive color she needs for the moment. Although her character is mostly deep in repentance, blame, and the spiritual world, Borodina’s natural sensuality added a powerful human presence to the role. Along with the vividness and intensity of her declamation, she carried the melodic lines with surpassing beauty of tone and phrasing.

Ildar Abdrazakov, a Russian, who is by now a fixture at the Met, was an unforgettable Dosifei. He focused his dark bass, thoroughly consistent in color across its range, into the fanatical consistency of his character, as a converted nobleman, almost rigid, but tempered by compassion. Abdrazakov’s concentration and his ability to produce just the right nuance of timbre or shade of expression at the moment that called for it was truly astonishing. Beneath the monk-like exterior of his Dosifei, there was a wealth of experience and sympathy in life—which made for a deeply moving and unforgettable portrayal.

Finally to Khovansky himself, the Ukrainian bass Anatoli Kotscherga, who was making his Met debut in the role, after establishing a great reputation in Europe as Dosifei and Boris Godunov. In Khovanshchina he has also sung the role of Shaklovity. Roza remarked that his production was rather wide and not exactly perfect, in contrast to Abdrazakov’s, for example, but this hardly impaired his musical and dramatic realization of Khovansky. Roza thought it even helped his characterization. He had a great many passages of great melodic beauty, and he sang these with an amplitude and resonance that did full justice to the musical qualities of the writing. On the other hand, his portrayal of Khovansky went beyond great acting in opera—or any kind of acting. Kotscherga fully inhabited the boyar Old Believer, so that he seemed a real presence before us in the house. As great as the work of Borodina and Abdrazakov was, this was a performance for the ages, and neither of us will ever forget it.

Kirill Petrenko is by now a familiar figure at the Met, having conducted Strauss, Lehár, and Mozart there. (He is not to be confused with Vasily Petrenko, the hot young Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.) This is Kirill’s first opportunity to conduct Russian repertoire at the Met, and the results show impressive dynamic power and orchestral mass, as well as a sure understanding of what Mussorgsky’s melos and dramaturgy require. His tempi never seemed arbitrary or symphonically conceived. On the contrary, he let the dramatic pacing  of each scene set the basic tempi, and, as we sat, absorbed in the action, we were barely aware of decisions being made. Yet, in the orchestral interludes and in the climaxes the full resonance and color of Mussorgsky’s writing and Shostakovich’s orchestration came through resplendently. As I mentioned above, Petrenko managed the vocal delivery of his singers with consummate skill but also made the most of Shostakovich and Stravinsky’s orchestral score as well. The Met Orchestra played eloquently, and all the harmonic and coloristic detail of Shostakovich’s orchestration came through, including great dissonances, which show the profound sympathy between the two great Russian composers.

This was one of the Met’s great nights, and we’ll not forget it any time soon.

The final scene of Mussorgsky's Khovananshchina. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

The final scene of Mussorgsky’s Khovananshchina. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.


Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L'Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides' Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.
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