Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina from the Met

by Rex Levang, Minnesota Public Radio
March 16, 2012
Ildar Abdrazakov as Dosifei in Mussorgsky's "Khovananshchina." (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) Ildar Abdrazakov as Dosifei in Mussorgsky's "Khovananshchina." (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) Olga Borodina as Marfa in Mussorgsky's "Khovananshchina." (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) Olga Borodina as Marfa in Mussorgsky's "Khovananshchina." (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) Olga Borodina as Marfa, Misha Didyk as Andrei Khovansky, and Wendy Bryn Harmer as Emma in Mussorgsky's "Khovananshchina." (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) Olga Borodina as Marfa and Ildar Abdrazakov as Dosifei in Mussorgsky's "Khovananshchina." (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) Misha Didyk as Andrei Khovansky in Mussorgsky's "Khovananshchina." (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) Misha Didyk as Andrei Khovansky and Anatoli Kotscherga as Ivan Khovansky in Mussorgsky's "Khovananshchina." (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) Misha Didyk as Andrei Khovansky and Olga Borodina as Marfa in Mussorgsky's "Khovananshchina." (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) George Gagnidze as Shaklovity and John Easterlin as a public scribe in Mussorgsky's "Khovananshchina." (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) Vladimir Galouzine as Vasily Golitsyn, Ildar Abdrazakov as Dosifei, and Anatoli Kotscherga as Ivan Khovansky in Mussorgsky's "Khovananshchina." (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) Anatoli Kotscherga as Ivan Khovansky in Mussorgsky's "Khovananshchina." (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) Anatoli Kotscherga as Ivan Khovansky in Mussorgsky's "Khovananshchina." (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) Anatoli Kotscherga as Ivan Khovansky, Ildar Abdrazakov as Dosifei, and Vladimir Galouzine as Vasily Golitsyn in Mussorgsky's "Khovananshchina." (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) The ballet (with choreography by Benjamin Millepied) in Mussorgsky's "Khovananshchina." Anatoli Kotscherga as Ivan Khovansky (in white) is seen in the background. (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) The final scene of Mussorgsky's "Khovananshchina." (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

St. Paul, Minn. — Tune in on Saturday, March 17 at 11 a.m., when the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts Khovanshchina by Modest Mussorgsky, best known in the opera world for his earlier Boris Godunov, often considered the greatest of Russian operas.

Like Boris, Khovanshchina has music which is deeply rooted in Russian folk song and the rhythms of the Russian language. Again like Boris, its story comes from a period of Russian history marked by struggles of competing factions, an autocratic ruler, and the pull between Russia and the West.

For a number of reasons, it has never been as familiar as Boris. For one thing, Mussorgsky died before completing it. Much of the opera was finished at that point but considering the massive history of revising that went into Boris, who knows what the final version might have been like? (Any staging must rely on editorial work by later musicians--in the case of the Met, Dmitri Shostakovich.)

There's also the question of the plot, which deals with an episode in Russian history which will not be familiar to most in the West. In very simplified terms: we see various characters and groups, all of whom are in opposition — unsuccessfully, as we will learn — to Tsar Peter the Great.

We might expect that Peter would appear as a principal character of the opera — but the rules of the time prohibited putting a member of the ruling dynasty on stage, or indeed mentioning his name. At first, this makes for a confusing plot, though once this basic conflict is understood, many of the episodes of the opera fall into place more clearly.

One of the characters opposing Peter is the nobleman Khovansky. He gives the opera its name, which translates approximately as "the Khovansky affair." But the group that many listeners will remember most vividly are the "Old Believers" — that part of the Russian people who are opposed to Peter's religious reforms. In the opera's finale, they accept death rather than change their beliefs.

Saturday's cast includes, among others, the star mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina as Marfa, who prophesies the somber events of the future in one of the score's most famous moments. Kirill Petrenko conducts.

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