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.
Calixto Bieito’s production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov recorded at the Bayerische Staatsoper in 2013 is, unsurprisingly, strong stuff. The central concept is that the political classes “don’t give a fig” for ordinary people and that’s as true , or truer, now than in early modern Russia. In such a world, where the people are manipulated into acting as their “betters” demand, is it possible for a person like Boris, who has risen to supreme power through manipulation and violence, to have a conscience?
Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni recorded at the 2010 Aix-en-Provence festival is full on Regie. He takes the characters and story of Mozart/DaPonte and recasts them quite radically. Zerlina is Donna Anna’s daughter. Donna Elvira, Donna Anna’s cousin, is married to Don Giovanni. Leporello is a family member too. The sense is of one extended, conventional, bourgeois family in which Don Giovanni is a fatally disruptive intrusion. Tcherniakov changes the time line too. Instead of taking place over a 24 hour period the story plays out over many weeks.
Claus Guth’s 2008 Salzburg production of Don Giovanni divided the critics along entirely predictable lines. It’s a very unusual treatment of Don Giovanni but the concept is stuck to with real consistency and it works to create a compelling piece of music theatre. The treatment on video too is not straightforward and, in a sense, the DVD/Blu-ray version is as much the work of Brian Large as it is of Claus Guth.