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Khovanshchina Returns

New York
Metropolitan Opera
02/27/2012 -  & March 1, 6, 10, 13, 17, 2012
Modest Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina
Mark Schowalter (Kouzka), Paul Corona (First Strelets), Jeffrey Wells (Second Strelets), John Easterlin (scribe), George Gagnidze (Shaklovity), Anatoli Kotscherga (Prince Ivan Khovansky), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Emma), Misha Didyk (Prince Andrei Khovansky), Olga Borodina (Marfa), Ildar Abdrazakov (Dosifei), Vladimir Galouzine (Prince Vasily Golitsyn), David Crawford (Varsonofiev), Maria Gavrilova (Susanna), Jeffrey Mosher (servant), Michael Todd Simpson (Streshnev)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Kirill Petrenko (conductor)
August Everding (production), Ming Cho Lee (set designer), John Conklin (costume designer), Gil Wechsler (lighting designer), Benjamin Millepied (choreographer)

(© Ken Howard/Met Opera)

The specter of Peter the Great haunts Mussorgsky’s less well known historical opera. Begun in the year of the bicentennial of Peter’s birth (1872), its plot reflects weightily on the important turn in Russian history with which the tsar is identified. Will Russia modernize or hold fast to its medieval Muscovite traditions? Will its great nobles become tame servitors or will they displace the autocratic monarchy in their own interest? Will Peter himself survive or will he be sidelined by his willful half sister, the Regent Sophia, and her favorite Prince Golitsyn? It takes a sophisticated knowledge of Russian history even to begin to understand this complex work and the dynamic forces behind the leading characters. To make it even more abstruse, tsarist censorship restrictions prevented either Peter or his half sister from appearing as characters in the opera, and they are only alluded to (in the Mariinsky Theater’s current production, however, a mute Peter appears in Scene 3 to pardon the defeated streltsy, or muskateers, after their failed rising). If I lacked graduate training in Russian history, I would find it beyond distracting to make sense of who the Old Believers were, why they were so angered by the liturgical reforms of Patriarch Nikon (another big name of the era who is mentioned in the opera but never appears), or the political nature of the Khovansky/Shaklovity conspiracies. And the history itself is far from perfect. Mussorgsky, guided by the critic and publicist Vladimir Stasov, conflated two separate incidents in Peter’s early reign into one intricate plot. The actual “Khovansky episode” (referred to in Russian by the opera’s title, the “shchina” suffix meaning “era of,” but in a negative sense) occurred in 1689 and resulted in Peter’s undisputed arrival in power. The episode involving Shaklovity, the streltsy commander whose operatic incarnation arranges and gloats over Khovansky’s murder, had occurred seven years earlier, in 1682, and resulted in the younger Peter’s temporary subordination to Regent Sophia. The Old Believer phenomenon, which was in history merely incidental to these power struggles, had developed as the result of contested church reforms in earlier decades.

This engrossing and rather unwieldly political drama, dressed up with a conventional operatic love triangle, has not enjoyed wide popularity outside Russia. The Met first produced it in the 1949-1950 season, but it vanished from the repertory after only four performances and did not return until August Everding’s production appeared in 1985. Sparing revivals last brought it to the Met stage in 1999. The effect remains uneven. Ming Cho Lee’s sets lose vitality in the public scenes, set on Moscow’s Red Square and in the Kremlin. The backdrops rest uneasily over the action and look mainly like wooden tracings of the original buildings. The internal scenes in Prince Golitsyn’s Westernized household (complete with harpsichord) and Prince Khovansky’s more Muscovite abode (for some reason but not unreliably imagined as red) convey greater intimacy. It was somewhat a pity that the final immolation scene did not feature more pyrotechnics. The fullest extent of the fire that consumes the recalcitrant Old Believers can be seen in the picture that illustrates this review. The costumes, by John Conklin, are laudable museum-quality reproductions of sumptuous seventeenth-century Russian dress. The lackluster scenes and the Met’s penchant for introducing more Russian operas over the past two decades suggest that it might be time for a fresh look.

Part of the Met’s great strength in the Russian repertoire is the immense vocal talent now at its disposal. Virtually the entire cast consists of distinguished singers from St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, long familiar to New York audiences because of the Met’s association with the Mariinsky’s artistic director Valery Gergiev. Gergiev’s appearances at the Met have been infrequent in recent seasons and anyone who ever heard him conduct Khovanshchina in Russia or elsewhere will miss his raw energy and emotional power in the pit. Kirill Petrenko, however, demonstrated fine musicianship in leading the complex score. Left unfinished at Mussorgsky’s death, its professional premiere only took place in 1911. The score was then reorchestrated by Shostakovich, and Stravinsky added a choral ending for the self-immolating Old Believers that is now in frequent circulation. The Ukrainian bass Anatoli Kotscherga made his long overdue Met debut in the title role. He captured the wily old prince’s machinations and gruffness in a superb study only slightly undermined by an aging voice. The tenor Misha Didyk, another Ukrainian debuting in the house, sang the role of Khovansky’s son Andrei with the light lyricism often demanded in Russian tenor parts. Olga Borodina sang as beautifully as I can recall her singing, reaching lustrously into the saintly role of Marfa’s deep mezzo range. The fortune teller scene and final aria were models of singing that Met audiences should long cherish. Her husband, the bass Ildar Abdrazakov, sang his first Russian role in the house as the Old Believer priest Dosifei with a profound and appealing clarity. George Gagnidze’s Shaklovity showcased an especially splendid yet sinister contribution. And the redoubtable tenor Vladimir Galouzine, the world’s leading Ghermann in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, was in fine voice as the well-intentioned but ill-starred Prince Golitsyn. The Met’s chorus stood on a level nearly equaling the best Russian ensembles. The choreographer Benjamin Millepied made his Met debut in arranging the dance of Khovansky’s Persian slave girls. The effort avoided kitsch in favor of an engaging sensuality.

Paul du Quenoy



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