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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Opera Review: Everybody Dies

Khovanshchina at the Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul Pelkonen.
Real-life husband-and-wife Olga Borodina and Ildar Abdrazakov in Act II of Khovanshchina.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
On Monday night, the Metropolitan Opera brought back Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina for the first time since 1999. This revival came with a twist. Conductor Kirill Petrenko chose to perform the Shostakovich version of the score, but with the final scene orchestrated by Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel. This was the first Met performance to use the Stravinsky finale.

Khovanshchina (the title means "The Khovansky Affair") is best thought of not a historical drama but as a series of tableaux depicting events in and around Moscow in 1682 and 1689. The rise of Peter the Great is central to the opera, but Imperial edict stated that it was illegal to depict any Romanov tsar on the stage. 

Mussorgsky forged ahead anyway. Working in the last years of his life, he constructed a libretto from historical records. With Peter offstage, he placed dramatic focus on the opposition: the fanatical Old Believers, the rebellious Streltsy militia, and their leader, the boyar Ivan Khovansky, a real historical figure who lends the opera his name. The composer died at the age of 42, leaving a partially completed first act, piano sketches for the middle scenes, and mere text for the finale, the mass self-immolation of the Old Believers. There is an orchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov, one by Shostakovich, and parts of an arrangement by Stravinsky and Ravel.

This production boasted an all-star cast of Russian singers. Anatoly Kotscherga made an overdue house debut as Ivan Khovansky. He has been singing this role for over two decades, and he brought power and experience to the power-hungry boyar. Mr. Kotscherga also showed why every bass wants to play this part: Khovansky gets his own private ballet from six sexy Persian slave girls.

The second major bass part is Dosifey, leader of the Old Believers. Ildar Abdrazakov was resonant in the part, though he lack the last smooth bottom notes that can make this a terrifying part.  Mrs. Abdrazakov, better known as Olga Borodina played Marfa, Dosifey's disciple. She hit some extraordinary low notes in this part, as the mystic, psychic, yet sensual female lead.

George Gagnidze has an unattractive voice, but is a good stage presence. He was powerful as the boyar Shaklovity, one of the few survivors of the turmoil. Tenor Vladimir Galouzine was ideal as the scheming Prince Golytsin. The young Ukrainian tenor Misha Didyk, (making his house debut) sang with clear tone but was stuck in the role of Andrei Khovansky, one of the least gratifying tenor parts in the repertory.

The six loosely connected episodes that make up Khovanshchina can be a long evening. But the opera was dramatically involving, thanks to the quicksilver conducting of Kirill Petrenko. He kept the plot moving, with an energy that did not sacrifice the weight of Mussorgsky's music. He also did a superb job conducting the carefully coached choristers, who had a number of opportunities to prove that the Metropolitan Opera can be a fine house for Russian repertory, if the company just puts its mind to it.

Stravinsky's version of the final scene still has arias and numbers for Marfa, Andrey and Dosifey. But the last pages are all about the chorus. Crammed into a wooden church (built on the stage turntable), they created an apocalyptic vision. Candles in hand, their voices rose through the ancient Russian church modes. Time itself seemed to stop for five minutes, only moving forward again when the flames went up, and the gold curtain came down.
Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.

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