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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Khovanshchina (1880) - Opera in Five Acts
Libretto by Modest Mussorgsky after Vladimir Staasov
Prince Ivan Khonvansky, Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass); Prince Andrey Khovansky, Vladimir Atlantov (ten); Prince Vassily Golitsyn, Yuri Maruzin (ten); Shaklovity, Anatoly Kocherga (bar); Dosifey, Paata Burchuladze (bass); Marfa, Ludmila Semtschuk (mez); Susanna, Brigitte Poschner-Klebel (sop); A Scrivener, Heinz Zednik (ten); Emma, Joanna Borowska (sop).
The Vienna State Opera Chorus, The Slovak Philharmonic Chorus, The Wiener Sängerknaben
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, Austrian Federal Theatre Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Recorded 1989, Vienna State Opera
ARTHAUS DVD 100 310 [188:00]

If you want to purchase a DVD of Khovanshchina then this one has to be it; there is no competition. As luck would have it, there is little audio competition either with the exception of a Philips CD recording of a 1992 Kirov production under Valery Gergiev.

This Arthaus DVD presents the film of the Vienna State Opera’s much admired 1989 performance under Claudio Abbado - for many, the greatest contemporary Mussorgsky conductor. The production, and the recording made for CD release in 1990, did much to rehabilitate a work that had had mixed fortunes since the death of the composer who never had time to finish it. The version used here, as in the case of Gergiev’s recording, is the one completed by Shostakovich with a final scene constructed by Stravinsky; altogether an improvement – and certainly more authentic - than the first attempt by Rimsky-Korsakov.

The filming of the production was released on video in 1997 with a few cast changes from the CD version. The main difference is the lead role of Khovansky père which is taken by the Bulgarian bass, Nicolai Ghiaurov. On the CD it was sung by the Dane, Aage Haugland.

Ghiaurov was one of the great basses of the last generation. This DVD release of the film more or less coincides with his death nearly three months ago and can thus serve as a fitting memorial. He was considered a worthy successor to his compatriot Boris Christoff from whom he inherited the intimidating mantle of the role of Boris Godunov. Yet he was also hugely experienced and authoritative in his less heralded part of Khovansky. In the film, at his entrance some twenty minutes into the opera, he immediately puts his stamp on the proceedings with a combination of physical and vocal command. Then in his sixtieth year, the voice may have been a mite passed its best but there is no doubt that we are witnessing a great singer at work. He will be mourned and leaves the soprano, Mirella Freni a widow.

Ghiaurov is surrounded by a very strong cast who all act and sing well in a staging that skilfully highlights the mood and pace change between the private and the public – a classic operatic theme. The sizeable choral forces, including children, bustle, sing and dance in the public settings with admirable energy and commitment. The tense, private confrontations are dramatically staged, often with clever use of lighting. The sets are semi-abstract and sufficiently unostentatious to ensure that we focus on the characters and the choreography of the choruses.

A particular virtue of this film is the well judged video direction. I assume credit for this should go to the ubiquitous Brian Large, producer of many a fine operatic video. The camera work is faultless in its sympathy with the staging. A fine example is in the second act where the seeress, Marfa, tells of the future to Prince Golitsyn. He gives her a glass jug of water over which she pores. The jug begins to glow, the lights go down, the camera homes in. Very effective.

Mussorgsky has created a drama that charts a rather tortuous dramatic course but Abbado steers through it musically with an unerring sense of direction and pace. His CD had some difficulties of balance among the singers but in the DVD these are not so apparent and the sound is in some ways superior. This is in the top rank of DVD operas and is very keenly priced. I have checked around for prices and find that if you buy the CD of the same production you will pay nearly three times more than for the DVD. Maybe there is some logic to this but it defeats me.

John Leeman

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