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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Khovanshchina

Mussorgsky's grim historical drama is not as grim as Russian history.
Feodor Chaliapin as Dosifey in Khovanshchina.
Photo from the Russian Private Opera, 1897.
Note: The title of this opera is pronounced "Kho-VAN-sheen-ah" with the accent on the second syllable and the "kh" sound made in the back of the throat. Translation: "The Khovansky Affair." 

When Mussorgsky decided to write an opera about the rise of Peter the Great, he was faced with a major problem: an Imperial edict forbidding the portrayal of any Romanov Tsar on the Russian stage. To solve the problem and tell the story of Peter's rise to power, the composer focused on the forces opposing Peter's rise. The Tsar himself is central to the action of Khovanshchina, but never appears.

Writing his own libretto and working from historical documents, Mussorgsky focused on the year 1682, and the efforts of three groups: the Streltsy riflemen, the boyars (Russian noblemen), and the Old Believers, a faction of fanatical Russian Orthodox churchgoers who believed that Peter was literally the Anti-Christ. The title comes from the involvement of boyar Ivan Khovansky (Anatoly Kotscherga) the commander of the Streltsy who tried to seize power in the middle of the turmoil. This is a real historical figure.

The plot follows the Streltsy Uprising of 1682. Khovansky's attempt at a coup--known in Russian history as the "Khovansky thing" or Khovanschina. Appointed as Minister of War, Ivan tried to usurp the throne, which was held by Peter and the disabled Ivan V under a regent, Princess Sophia. Most of the scenes consisting of  discussion of the future of Russia and the unwelcome changes sweeping the country. Central to the action is the Old Believer Dosifey (a great bass part, sung here by Ildar Abdrazakov), his disciple Marfa (Olga Borodina) and Andrei, Ivan's son who is obsessed with Marfa.
Morning of the Streltsy Execution by Vasili Surikov.
Peter the Great is on the horse, to the right.
Mussorgsky fictionalized a number of events in Khovanshchinha, including the assassination of Ivan Khovansky in the middle of an orgy surrounded by Persian slave girls. (He had to put the ballet somewhere.) In real life, Khovansky and his son were beheaded after fleeing for their lives. The Streltsy were lined up and executed n Red Square after a second coup attempt in 1689. Peter chopped off four of their heads personally, and had the blood spill into the coffin of a boyar who was in on the conspiracy.

In the opera, the rebellious riflemen receive a pardon, and are rendered politically powerless. Andrei and Marfa perish with the Old Believers, who choose to burn themselves to death inside a church rather than live with Peter's religious reforms.


Mussorgsky died at the age of 42, leaving the libretto, some musical fragments, and piano sketches for the first four acts. His friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov orchestrated and revised the opera, softening the ending and writing the orchestration in his own style. In the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky and Dmitri Shostakovich each took a crack at completing Khovanshchina. The Stravinsky version is lost, except for the Act V orchestration.  The Met uses the Shostakovich version, mounted in a well-preserved August Everding staging from 1985.

Recording Recommendation:
Although it is much more obscure than Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina is well represented on CD. For the Shostakovich orchestration, Valery Gergiev's recording with the Mariinsky Theater is a safe recommendation. But it's out of print, caught in the current label transition of the Philips catalogue over to Decca. So....

Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. Claudio Abbado (DG, 1989)
Ivan Khovansky: Aage Haugland
Marfa: Marjana Lipovšek
Dosifey: Paata Burchuladze

With a cosmopolitan cast (an Italian conductor, Austrian orchestra and chorus, a Danish Ivan, a Czech Marfa, and a Georgian Dosifey) this recording dates from before the collapse of the Iron Curtain. But it is notable for Mr. Abbado's tasteful conducting of the score. Based on a series of performances in Vienna, this is a powerful version of the opera. 



The first four acts are the Shostakovich version. The last act (the immolation of the Old Believers) uses Igor Stravinsky's orchestration, based on Russian church modes. It is quiet, moving way to end the opera.


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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.