Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina may be the most depressing opera ever written. It’s a catalogue of executions, murders, betrayals and mass executions that are no doubt designed to show the extreme purity of the Russian soul. I’m glad I’m not Russian. It’s also a rather beautiful score, though how much that’s due to Mussorgsky who didn’t complete and didn’t orchestrate it is, I suppose, anyone’s guess. In the version I watched; a 1989 performance from the Wiener Staatsoper, the ending is by Stravinsky and the orchestration by Shostakovich.
So what is Khovanshchina all about? It’s set early in the reign of Peter the Great and is ‘about’ the struggle between modernization, here represented by Shaklovity (bass); some sort of court apparatchnik, Prince Ivan Khovansky (bass); boyar and leader of the Streltsy (a sort of police force made up of permanently drunk thugs) and Dosifei (bass); leader of the Old Believers (a bunch of religious nutcases). Khovansky wants to overthrow the Tsar and put his worthless son Prince Andrei (tenor) on the throne. Dosifei doesn’t like the Tsar much either but has no time for the philandering Khovanskys either. There’s a subplot involving Marfa (mezzo) who was formerly betrothed to Andrei and is also a soothsayer and, apparently a witch, Andrei and Andrei’s latest infatuation, a German Lutheran called Emma (soprano). Shaklovity has Khovansky senior murdered following a rather curious scene in which scantily clad Persian slave girls ‘dance’ for him. I say ‘dance’ but it’s more a soft core lesbian sex scene with BDSM overtones. The Streltsy are captured and are set to be executed but are reprieved for no apparent reason. The Tsar sends troops to slaughter the Old Believers but they get their retaliation in first and commit mass suicide in a sort of Jamestown moment. Cheerful stuff!
Alfred Kirchner’s production is pretty straightforward. Sets are somewhat abstracted but costumes are period except, bizarrely, for the Tsar’s guards who look they parachuted in from the 1920s. The choruses are well directed and the immolation scene is pretty atmospheric. There’s a recurring pyramid of skulls motif that seems not inappropriate. The singing is more than adequate. The three basses; Nicolai Ghiaurov (Ivan Khovansky), Paata Burchuladze (Dosifey) and Anatoli Kocherga (Shaklovity) are all more than adequate. The only character I could bring myself to care about, Marfa, is very well sung by Ludmila Semtschuk. Claudio Abbado does a fine job in the pit backed up by the Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera.
Video direction is by Brian Large and, despite that, I had some hope after the first scene where we actually get to see the set occasionally. My hopes were soon dashed by a series of relentless and often inappropriate close ups. When there’s a dance number involving three quite good and very good looking dancers focussing on the elderly gent who is slavering over them is just perverse. In the immolation scene the camera work reaches unprecedented levels of ponceyness with dissolves, superpositions, weird angles and strange close ups. It’s truly horrible.
Technically, this is a pretty basic package. The picture is average DVD quality 4:3 not helped by large, bright yellow subtitles (English only) that often obscure the most important part of the frame. Sound is decent Dolby 2.0. There are no extras and documentation is limited to an English track listing.