Tcherniakov’s Khovanshchina

Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina is a bit of a weird opera.  It’s ostensibly based on a series of not entirely related events that unfolded during the succession crisis following the death of Tsar Fyodor III (which took about 12 years to play out) into a story that takes place in a day.  It’s complicated by the fact that key players in the story; the Tsars Peter and Ivan and the Tsarevna Sofia don’t actually appear because the Russian censorship would not allow members of the dynasty to be portrayed on stage.  Perhaps unsurprisingly Tcherniakov isn’t much interested in the details of the history and uses it to make some, not always entirely obvious, points about modernity vs tradition, personal power and the nature of religious cults.


The basic set up for Tcherniakov’s 2007 production at the Bayerische Staatsoper is based around a “split screen” set with frames for Tsar Peter and the Tsarevna above the main stage action where actors do portray those characters though on the video we don’t see much of what is going onmost of the time.  Frames either side of the main action are also used for some scenes e.g. Ivan Khovansky and his girls in Act 4.  Most of the action though is played out on a fairly sparsely furnished central area.


The setting has been moved to a sort of timeless present.  The Streltsy carry carbines or automatic pistols.  In typical Tcherniakov manner there are lots of gun shots and even more drinking.  There are some interesting scenes and it does hold together but I think it would be a difficult watch for anybody not familiar with the opera.


Some things I noticed:

  • Tsar Peter appears to be being portrayed as a gluttonous idiot.  I’m not sure why.
  • The affair between Sofia and Golitsin is made quite explicit.
  • The director doesn’t have much time for cults.  The Old Believers are shown taunting Marfa while smoking cigarettes and eating fast food hamburgers.  So much for the sacred traditions of Holy Mother Russia.
  • In the first scene of Act 4 a very drunk Ivan Khovansky is making merry with his girls.  The Dance of the Persian Slave Girls is actually “danced” by the peasant women in various states of undress and with rather SM overtones.  Khovansky starts shooting his pistol randomly and kills two of them before an old woman comes in and shoots him.  Except he appears to be OK and wanders off throwing a hand grenade into the room.
  • Nothing at all happens in Act 5.  The Old Believers stand or loll around singing but there’s no “immolation”; perhaps because, despite the Tsar’s pardon, they were all shot at the end of Act 4.


It really ought just to be a hot mess but there’s something in the music and the performances that gives it a strange coherence.  Paacha Burchaladze’s absolutely demonic Ivan Khovansky is a thing of beauty as is his singing.  Doris Soffel makes Marfa a complex and almost believable character.  Anatoli Kotscherga as Dosifey is a little oasis of calm and dignity in the chaos that’s going on most of the time.  Some of the other characters are well played too.  I liked John Daszak’s Golitsin but even fine singing from Klaus Florian Vogt couldn’t make Andrei Khovansky at all interesting.  Some of the choral scenes are quite exciting too and it’s a very fine chorus.  It’s hard too not to like the overall sound Kent Nagano produces from the singers and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester.  It all sounds very Russian.  (Technical note:  This recording using the Shostakovich orchestration but the Stravinsky final scene).


Filming this production, “split screen” and all, must have been remarkably difficult and I think Karina Fibich’s unfussy approach focussed mainly on whatever “screen” the main action was is happening in makes sense.  Video quality on Blu-ray is excellent as are both DTS-HD-MA and LPCM 2.0 sound tracks.  Subtitle options are English, French, German and Spanish.  There are no extras on the disk.  The booklet has a track listing and a historical essay about the piece’s compositional history plus a couple of sentences about Tcherniakov’s approach.  There’s no synopsis which is a bit of a problem.

There are currently only two Khovanshchinas available on video.  The competition is a 2007 recording from the Liceu which is more straightforward but not as good vocally.  It’s also only available on DVD.


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