12:24 pm Mar. 9, 2012
You can’t help but love Modest Mussorgsky; not only was he a brilliant composer, he was such a total, Dostoyevskian mess. This month, his great opera Khovanshchina is being performed by the Met after a 13-year absence.
When he died in 1881 age 42, after years of alcohol abuse, Mussorgsky left Khovanshchina not-quite-finished and not orchestrated at all. When it reached the Russian stage in 1886, it was orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov was performed regularly by the Met beginning in 1913. But Khovanshchina didn’t get there until 1950, when it was performed in English translation—heard today, the surviving broadcast sounds faintly ludicrous. That was it until 1985, when it returned to the Met in a new production, now sung, as evolving performance practice made almost mandatory, in the original language.
As with the earlier Boris, the nationalist Mussorgsky returned to Russia’s own history when he made Khovanshchina. Set in late seventeenth-century Moscow and environs, it depicts macro strife between political and religious factions, micro discord between congregants, family, and lovers. The Khovanskys, father Ivan and son Andrei, command a private militia—the Streltsy—and a decidedly opportunistic investment in Russia’s future and dynastic succession.
Prince Golitsin wants Russia to embrace the future and the West. The orthodox Old Believers, led by priest Dosifei, emphatically stand their ground. It’s a false-bottomed world in which political as well as emotional alliances are ever-shifting. The endless manipulation of an under-educated populace by despots is eternally relevant, to our own politics as much as Russia’s.
The score blends the most angular speech-cued dissonance with the flowing Russian legato of folk music and liturgical chant. Scenes end not with the bang of fortissimo climax but with hymn and invocation. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between music and moral character that makes every characterization fluid: The Streltsys are monsters, yet when they and their wives realize that they are cornered, and plead in choral unanimity for deliverance, they become beatific.
There are many reasons to visit this Met run of Khovanshchina, but Olga Borodina’s performance as Marfa alone would be reason enough. (Borodina is pictured above.) It was a breakthrough role for her as a very young singer at the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg a quarter of a century ago; her sublime performance was recorded live there in the early 1990s for a video release that hasn’t yet made it to DVD. Since then she’s sung it many times in different places, but only now with the Met.
Marfa most graphically embodies society’s schisms as well as those in the individual psyche. She’s a member of the Old Believer camp, identified with Christian fanaticism. She frequently seems to be entertaining visions and her hunger for joint martyrdom with her faithless lover Andrei Khovansky takes back even cleric Dosifei—although eventually he helps to make it possible. Marfa, too, is morally compromised and somewhat insidious. One can’t help wonder if that martyrdom she dreams of for Andrei is partly a revenge for his romantic betrayal. Marfa has become a regular visitor to Golitsin, whose fortunes she prophecies at his request. She is obviously toying with him for some reason. But when she foretells his downfall and how his character will be chastened by suffering, she seems to be a voice of conscience and spiritual salvation as well as manipulation.
Borodina’s long history with the role of Marfa perhaps makes inevitable that at fleeting moments she seems to be standing outside it, analyzing her own experience with it. Marfa remains a great role for her. It doesn’t challenge Borodina’s highest notes, which have been dicey for some time. At the third performance of the run her voice was able to demonstrate a seamless equilibrium that almost matched how she sounded twenty years ago.
Borodina’s gestures are economical and she knows the potency of standing still. She emphasizes tonal shading and instrumental color: her voice is itself the tolling bell and the chanting liturgy. Intoning messages of fatality and doom, her lowest notes are timber-shivering. She scales down to piano with exquisite deftness; then has no trouble raising her voice implacably, informing Andrei in no uncertain terms that his world is over.
The opera concludes with the Old Believers setting fire to their hermitage and themselves to avoid massacre by ascendant Peter the Great. Before they join their brethren in the hermitage, Borodina’s Marfa solaces Misha Didyk’s Andrei with a parting “Hallelujah” that is at once erotic, maternal, and liturgical.
Like Borodina, Vladimir Galouzine (pictured above) is one of the Mariinsky’s leading lights as well as an international player. His Golitsin was true to Mussorgskian paradox: his barbaric Slavic howl perfectly suited the composer’s depiction of a consummate cosmopolite. Anatoli Kotscherga’s enveloping bass gave us all the bark and the bite needed for Khovansky Senior (pictured at left), his dissipation in his final scene effectively caroming off the musical pitch. Junior Andrei’s complete fatuousness was convincingly represented by Didyk. Ildar Abrazakov bulked out the bottom of his voice as patriarch Dosifei. Dosifei, we learn, was himself once a prince. Abrazakov, younger than most Dosifeis, visually suggests some connection to his former reprobate self. George Gagnidze (pictured below) was crackling as Shaklovity, the Khovanskys’ nemesis. He is a shadowy and sinister figure, but it is he who muses at length on Russia’s plight, almost becoming a mouthpiece for Mussorgsky himself.
August Everding’s 1985 Met production holds up well even close to thirty years on. As contradictory as the opera itself, Ming Cho Lee’s sets yaw between topical abstraction and minutely detailed period realism. Kirill Petrenko’s conducting maximized the possibilities of integration between Mussorgsky’s divergent directions. He didn’t reach for the obvious.
The Russophile in me salutes the Met hiring citizens of the former Soviet Union to sing in its Russian opera productions. My chauvinistic sentiments, however, are warmed by the Met’s chorus. They demonstrate how stylistic authenticity can be achieved by measured application and canny adoption. Likewise the more minor roles were very well sung; within seconds of the curtain’s rise you are convinced that you are in the presence of something prepared with utmost care.
Performances of 'Khovanscchina' continue Saturday, March 10, Tuesday, March 13, and Saturday, March 17. Ticket information here.
All photos Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
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