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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839–1881)
Khovanshchina - opera in five acts (1872–1880)
Orchestration: Dmitri Shostakovich; Ending by Guerassim Voronkov
Vladimir Ognovenko (bass) – Prince Ivan Khovansky; Vladimir Galouzine (tenor) – Prince Andrei Khovansky; Robert Brubaker (tenor) – Prince Vasily Golitsyn; Nikolai Putilin (baritone) – Shaklovity; Vladimir Vaneev (bass) – Dosifei; Elena Zaremba (mezzo-soprano) – Marfa; Graham Clark (tenor) – Scribe; Nataliya Tymchenko (soprano) – Emma; Pavel Kudinov (tenor) – Varsonofev; Francisco Vas (bass) – Kuzka; Mikhail Vekua (tenor) – Streshnev; Dimitar Darlev (bass) – Streltsy; Josep Ruiz (tenor) – A follower of Golitsyn; Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu/Michael Boder
Stage Director: Stein Winge; Set Designer: Chloe Obolensky; Costume Designer: Claudie Gastine; Lighting Designer: Davy Cunningham; Choreographer: Inger-Johanne Rütter; Television Director: Angel Luis Ramirez
rec. live, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 26, 29 May 2007.
Audio formats: LPCM Stereo; DTS Surround; Picture format: 16/9 anamorphic
OPUS ARTE OA0989D [2 DVDs: 192:00]
Experience Classicsonline

When Modest Mussorgsky died in 1881 he left behind an unfinished opera, Khovanshchina (The Khovansky Family). The end of act two and the final chorus of the Old Believers existed only as sketches. The assiduous completer of other composers’ work, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, orchestrated and finished Mussorgsky’s manuscript to allow the work to be premiered at the Kononoc Theatre  in St Petersburg on 21 February 1886. It had a run of nine performances but five years later appeared at the Mariinsky Theatre with Chaliapin as Dosifei. In June 1913 it was presented at a theatre in Champs-Élysées in Paris, revised by Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel, but during the next half century it was Rimsky-Korsakov’s version that was played, even though it was criticized on various counts. He made some cuts but he also made changes in the music to make it fit with his own aesthetic. In 1958 Dmitri Shostakovich worked out a new version that goes back to Mussorgsky’s original thoughts. This version has also been criticized and the end of the opera has been rewritten a number of times. When the Finnish National Opera produced Khovanshchina a few years ago conductor Mikko Franck, the present General Music Director of the house, had composed his own end – the present production from Gran Teatre del Liceu employs Guerassim Voronkov’s end.
 
Irrespective of which version or which ending is used, it is a masterpiece, at least as regards the music. It has the same rugged beauty and power as Boris Godunov, but what after all makes it a flawed masterpiece is the libretto by the composer and Vladimir Stasov. Stage director Stein Winge writes in the liner-notes about the quarrel between the main protagonists Ivan Khovansky, Golitsyn and Dosifei in the second act: ‘The music is very powerful, but their discussion leads to nothing./… /Everything stagnates; it is as though the characters are just emptily calling out, only giving emphasis to their own individual situation …’ It is also a very long work and Winge has in this production cut a couple of scenes because they are not very interesting and to make it more consistent.
 
The libretto was inspired by old chronicles and deals with the struggle for power between the representatives of the old and new Russia in the late 17th century. The uprising of the Streltsy, led by Ivan Khovansky, has taken place - this happened on 15 May 1682 - and as a result the Tsarevna Sofija has become ruler in the name of her children, Ivan and Peter – later to become Peter the Great. The ideological conflicts are personified by the three main characters. The violent and fanatic Ivan Khovansky, leader of the Streltsy, represents the power of the Boyars and the ‘old’ Russia; Dosifei, leader of the Old Believers, represents the enigmatic non-Europeanized Russia; Prince Golitsyn represents the ‘new’ Russia and influences from the West. Politics, religion and superstition intertwine in this brutal and pessimistic tale, permeated to no little degree by the music of the Orthodox Church.
 
Stein Winge has transported the drama to the 1950s ‘because it makes no sense to stage a historic Russian production for a non-Russian audience and because we think it helps to focus on the fact that history tends to repeat itself’. He has, however, done so with a cautious hand. There is no real modernizing, the costumes are very little changed from the 17th century until now and the peasants look about the same. There is nothing spectacular about the staging and it wouldn’t fit with the bleak events that are unfolded. The stage is dark, long scenes in a cold blue light, and only Ivan Khovansky and Prince Golitsyn wear costumes with some colour in a couple of scenes. The ballet with the Persian Dances is an exception but this is also intended to be a kind of divertimento. In this production it has a dramatic function by showing other sides of Ivan Khovansky’s contradictory character. The dwarf, whom he carries on his arm like a monkey, is all red, and we understand why when we come to scene where Khovansky is murdered.
 
The sense of horror is imprinted on the viewer from the outset when the curtain rises during the orchestral introduction. Red Square is bluish, foggy, soldiers walk about, corpses are hanging from gallows, everything breathes violence, threat. Shaklovity, the Chief of the Police, in black, fur-collared coat and a menacing expression, is the incarnation of tyranny from his first entrance and all through the performance, appearing also in scenes where he has nothing to sing. His shadow looms above all the proceedings. Even in the final scene, after the Old Believers have committed their collective suicide, he walks in and watches the dead bodies. Evil has triumphed. This final scene is utterly moving. The Old Believers, dressed in white, sing their hymn, light their candles and instead of ascending the pyre they one by one blow out the flame and sink to the ground. The music in Voronkov’s version just dies away.
 
The choruses are central in this opera, as in so many other epic Russian operas, and the singers of the Liceu make honourable contributions in their various guises, even though the women, personifying peasant girls, are a bit sprawling. Michael Boder’s tempos are drawn out, at least compared to the only other recording I have access to, but that is the Rimsky-Korsakov version. The cast is a strong one with Elena Zaremba’s Marfa, one of the great female roles in Russian opera, intense and glowing but unfortunately afflicted by a heavy vibrato that disfigures some of her singing. There is however no mistaking the commitment and the passion in her meeting with Andrei in the final scene. Andrei is fervently sung by the tremendous Vladimir Galouzine, initially a little dry in tone but he soon warms up and becomes his usual mesmerizing self. Vladimir Ognovenko is another hypnotic actor and he makes a vivid portrait of the complex personality of Ivan Khovansky, his irascible disposition. Dosifei is less complex as a character but Vladimir Vaneev still makes him believable in his goodness and he sings with warmth and lyrical glow. His act 5 aria Zdes’, na etom mestye svyatye is truly moving. Nikolai Putilin is a formidably ominous Shaklovity and sings impressively, albeit rather strained in places. As Prince Golitsyn Robert Brubaker is smug and slimy and the rubber-faced Graham Clark is characteristically expressive as the scribe – there are similarities with Mime, one of his great roles.
 
Gran Teatre del Liceu have produced a number of fine DVDs and this Khovanshchina can be added to that list. There is at least one other DVD version of this opera available, Abbado’s Vienna version with Nicolai Ghiaurov as Ivan Khovansky, which has been highly praised, not least by John Leeman on this site, but I was deeply touched by the present issue, which  powerfully delineates the horrifying conflicts that continue to befall mankind.
 
Göran Forsling
 

 


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