The enigmas of Khovanshchina at the Met

Khovanshchina is an imposing confusion, a solemn tragedy with the solemnity and stature of Greek tragedy but none of the clarity. Musorgsky’s music is so damn good, and the musical values in this Met revival are so high that you’re hanging on every word, even though they haven’t done anything to sort out the drama, or even really bothered to portray it.

Musorgsky, Khovanshchina, orchestrated by Shostakovich with final scene by Igor Stravinsky. Metropolitan Opera, 3/1/2012. Production by August Everding (revival), conducted by Kirill Petrenko with Anatoli Kotscherga (Ivan Khovansky), George Gagnidze (Shaklovitïy), Olga Borodina (Marfa), Ildar Abdrazakov (Dosifey), Misha Didyk (Andrei Khovansky), Vladimir Galouzine (Golisïn), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Emma).

Khovanshchina was left unfinished upon its composer’s untimely death. The conductor’s note in my recording says this:

Khovanshchina is a massive canvas of many conflicting tragedies, fears, ambitions and hopes for Russia. The additions of Stravinsky and Shostakovich, for all their musical interest, are comments on Russian history… and they result in a political emphasis to the opera which cannot be justified by Musorgsky’s own scores and letters. The very ambiguity of Khovanshchina makes is an opera of great contemporary relevance; to polarise or clarify is, I feel, to reduce its effect, especially in the Russia of today.

The conductor who wrote this was none other than Valery Gergiev, in Gorbachev-era late Soviet Russia. (The Gergiev of today, however, would fit in perfectly among the shady schemers of the opera’s libretto.) The point that Shostakovich’s and Stravinsky’s additions to the incomplete score constitute an ideological reworking is absolutely correct. But it’s impossible to know—and to my mind difficult to believe—that a Khovanshchina finished by Musorgsky would have lacked a strong political message (though evident disagreements between Musorgsky and his librettist Vladimir Stasov may have muddled things).

As it is, Khovanshchina acquired a sort of accidental modernism, a fragmentation and polyvalent quality that is a relic not of intention but of process, of a work left in pieces and given its shape by others. The basic plot deals with the power struggles between Ivan Khovansky, head of the Streltsy militia and his semi-allies the schismatic Old Believers versus the Boyars (aristocrats) versus and the regent Sophia, and the offstage rumblings of Westernization from the teenage future Peter the Great. Khovansky might want to use his unruly militia to overthrow Sophia? Or does the scheming boyar Shaklovitïy just want to get him out of the way? Does the regent not like the diplomat Golisïn anymore? What makes it so confusing is that Stasov condenses many events into a short time period and, disallowed from showing any Romonovs onstage, much happens through proxy. Khovansky falls and the Old Believers immolate at the end, paving the way for Peter the Great, and it’s unclear if the opera thinks this is good for Russia or not.

Unless Russian history is your job or hobby, it’s probably best to forget about trying to follow the plot in close detail. In any case, the Met’s rickety and faded August Everding production doesn’t do anything to make it interesting or compelling. (Tellingly, you can barely see the set in the production photos, found at the bottom of this post.) What you have is the music, the main event in this performance. The score’s “broad canvas” of schemers express themselves with a noble lyricism that is quite different from the rough realism of Boris Godunov, and the music has an austere beauty that is uniquely beautiful, whatever its message.

The Met has assembled a largely Slavic cast for this opera, and an impressive group it is, with many more beautiful and fewer steely or worn voices than your average straight-from-the-Kirov crew. This diversity may be because Valery Gergiev was, for once, not conducting. Instead we had Kirill Petrenko, whose leadership was more refined and layered, less white-hot and loud, befitting this surprisingly elegant score. The orchestra sounded excellent—particularly when I escaped the rear orchestra overhang after the first intermission—and the chorus had its moments of greatness but some wobbly circa-2005 ones as well.

Olga Borodina was the star of the evening as Marfa, an Old Believer/maybe-witch/spurned lover who ties the plot together in various improbable ways. Her mezzo has been headed south over the past few years, adding a deep resonance to her already well-known velvety richness. (One wonders how she will manage Amneris next season.) And while her acting wasn’t much (no one’s was, really), she can tell the story with her voice.

Most of the rest of the roles belong to lower-voiced men. Anatoli Kotscherga must be getting on in years but Russian basses are a durable article and he has both cavernous sound and a good amount of charisma. George Gagnidze’s baritone was impressive in Shakovitïy’s Scene 3 lament for the pains of Russia—even if no one quite knew what he actually wanted to happen to Russia. And Ildar Abdrazakov matched Borodina for vocal warmth and depth as the Old Believer chief Dosifey. In the higher categories, Misha Didyk was ardent and promising as Andrei but this yelping sort of role doesn’t offer many opportunities to really hear the voice’s quality. Former Andrei Vladimir Galouzine sounded very baritonal as Golitsïn but still has the notes and the voice is in good shape. Supporting roles were strong, particularly John Easterlin’s well-characterized Scribe and Wendy Bryn Harmer’s bright-voiced Emma.

The Met is using Shostakovich’s completion, supposedly based on Musorgsky’s original score before the inevitable Rimsky-Korsakov got his hands on it. But Petrenko has edited it a bit in ways to dilute the Peter the Great-positive message imposed by Shostakovich and Rimsky (edits similar to those found in Claudio Abbado’s recording). At the end of Act 2, Petrenko ends with an unresolved chord, leaving out Shostakovich and Rimsky’s Peter-positive postludes (Musorgsky had imagined a big concertante but no one has composed it). More drastically, Petrenko has adopted the final scene completion by Stravinsky, a quiet and ghostly ending as the Old Believers burn up.  Shostakovich had ended with a big reprise of the Dawn prelude hailing the glorious future of Peter the Great’s reforms, while Stravinsky seems to take the dire forecasts of the Old Believers more to heart, a (1872) Boris-like conclusion.

I wish the Met’s production rose to the challenges of the opera as much as the cast did. Even if you agree with Gergiev that political neutrality is the way to go, you could do something, anything to make it visually compelling. From the flat sets to the indifferent direction (including a very boring dance from the inevitable Persian slave girls), it saps a lot of energy and grandeur from this great opera. But the music is fantastic, and considering how rarely the Met ventures into this territory at all (there is not a single Slavic opera on the schedule for all of next season), that’s still something to be thankful for.

For a compelling modern DVD of this opera, check out this Dmitri Tcherniakov production from Munich.

Khovanshchina continues through March 17.

Photos (copyright Ken Howard/Met):

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1 Comment

  1. I apologize for the late comment; I just saw the production last night.

    I found Ildar Abdrazakov's of Dosifei and this production's use of him to be quite interesting; he wasn't snarling and sadistic (as Kotscherga was when he played Dosifei under Abbado) but calm and peaceful. His entrances were not ostentatious events; his moments were solemn and a little sad.

    This helped me focus on the internal problems that led to the fall of the groups involved (rather than just the conflicts between these groups,) the streltsy brawling among themselves, the Princes bickering, even Susanna and Dosifei had a physical altercation.

    I thought that Stravinsky's final scene works very well with this production, with the Old Believers singing their hymns to mother Russia, releasing themselves to god as their home burns around them is haunting.

    This is not a simple, good versus evil work but I think – especially in this production – that the message is that the old guard fell due to their own internal squabbling and inconsistencies and that in this much was lost.

    I also absolutely loved Anatoli Kotscherga's powerful and clearly sung and well-acted Ivan Khovansky. Kirill Petrenko and the orchestra sounded wonderful as well; it would be nice to have him back sometime soon!