Vienna State Opera 2017-18 Review – Khovanshchina: Satisfaction on An Epic Scale

By Alan Neilson

Mussorgsky’s epic masterpiece, “Khovanshchina,” like its predecessor “Boris Godunov,” is an exploration into a significant period of Russian history. However, whereas “Boris Godunov” focuses primarily on the individual tragedy of Boris, of a Tsar destroyed from within by his own personal demons, “Khovanshchina” is conceived on a far grander scale, one in which Mussorgsky seeks to lay bare the momentous forces that collided as a result of the policies pursued by Peter the Great in his attempt to westernize Russia. In both operas it is the Tsar who is at the centre of the drama, but in the case of “Khovanshchina,” Peter does not make an appearance, owing to the prohibition of members of the Romanov dynasty from being portrayed on stage. Nevertheless, Mussorgsky successfully overcame this problem, and it is Peter the Great, an unseen force that dominates the work, an ever-present, who oversees and controls events. Moreover, this is truly a Russian opera, and not just because it is based on actual historical events, incorporating real historical characters, but because Mussorgsky underpins the historical narrative by using the music and sounds of Russia itself, through allusions to its traditional music, especially to its folk melodies, and to a lesser extent to its religious heritage, including the bells of St Basil’s cathedral. In doing so Mussorgsky successfully conjures up the “black earth” of Mother Russia in conflict with the foreign plough, that seeks to destroy the nation’s traditions and culture. In a real sense, therefore, it is an opera that seeks to understand and define its past, and an opportunity for directors and audiences to pass judgement on Peter the Great, who may be seen as either a positive, reforming Tsar or a destructive despot who trampled over his people’s interests.

The drama, set in the late 17th century, essentially concerns three groups with whom Peter has run into open conflict and which he now needs to crush. Each group is represented in the opera by a single character. The established and conservative Boyars, who are determined to hold on to their inherited power, are led by the leader of the Streltsy Guard, Ivan Khovansky. A religious group of recusants, the so-called Old Believers, who view Peter as no less than the anti-Christ himself, are led by a charismatic monk called Dosifey. Both oppose and threaten the Tsar’s westernizing program. The third group, however, led by Prince Golitsin, are supporters of reform, but are seen by Peter as a threat to his autocratic power. By turn, Peter has Khovansky killed, Golitsin exiled, and in the opera’s final scene, Dosifey and the Old Believers, who have now given up all hope of salvation in this world, free themselves in act of mass suicide. Peter’s will triumphs and his enemies are vanquished. However, the drama is not so baldly presented. In fact, it is played out against the background of the Russian people, represented in grand choral scenes, of love interests primarily in the person of Marfa, an Old Believer, along with a host of other significant and not so significant characters, the most important being the Boyar Shaklovity, a supporter of the Tsar.

Unfortunately, owing to his untimely death, resulting from years of hard drinking, Mussorgsky failed to complete “Khovanshchina,” which must rank as one of opera’s greatest what-might-have-beens. Nevertheless, he left behind a vocal score, with only one or two gaps, notably at the end of acts two and five, and had orchestrated a couple of fragments. It thus fell to others, namely Rimsky-Korsakov and then later to Shostakovich, to provide finished versions of the work. In this production by Wiener Staatsoper, it is the Shostakovich version that was used. Fortunately, one of the fully orchestrated parts Musorgsky did complete was the evocative prelude, “Dawn over the River Moscow,” which was wonderfully delivered by the Wiener Staatsoper Orchester – its brightening melody ushering in a feeling of optimism and tranquility as the new day begins. A beautiful contradiction to the events about to follow. The curtain rises to a stage bathed in blood red light with crosses in the foreground.

Power Structures

This production, directed by Lev Dodin, with sets by Alexander Borovskiy, aimed at removing any unnecessary and superfluous movements by the cast and limiting the amount of set changes, thereby creating a “dynamic stasis,” in which the audience was directed to focus upon the power and drama within Mussorgsky’s music, which is crucial to understanding the inner lives of the characters. The set consisted of two wooden frames, one behind the other. They emerged from below the stage, each with three levels and divided vertically into three sections, effectively creating nine spaces in each frame. The wooden structures were populated with the cast. There was no need for them to exit or enter the stage as the structure simply descended below, re-emerging with the next group of singers. This movement was also kept to a minimum. A simple idea, but it worked perfectly, creating in the process some marvellous mise-en-scene. In the opera’s finale the Old Believers, stood crowded into the spaces, overlooked by Dosifey, Marfa and Andrey, and were slowly lowered, level by level, below the stage, praising God’s Kingdom, blood-red lights shining upon them as they were consumed by the fire.

Yet the set was far more than just functional and aesthetically pleasing. The levels and spaces were used to symbolise status and power relationships. In Act one, Khovansky appears in the center top space, flanked by his henchmen, the populace crowded into the spaces below and behind. In Act two, Khovansky, Golitsin and Dosifey meet in Golitsin’s house to debate Russia’s future. Golitsin, having the highest status stands in the top center space, Khovansky directly below him and Dosifey on the lowest level, reflecting his lowly status. Moreover, having such a flexible, yet unitary set meant that the production as a whole had a unified, integrated and connected feel to it, upon which the narrative sat comfortably.

The costumes, also designed by Borovskiy, were certainly Russian in appearance but were not exclusive to a specific period. The Streltsy Guard in Act one were dressed in modern combat attire, with balaclavas to hide their faces, immediately creating the atmosphere of violence which pervaded the production throughout the evening. This not only reflected the violence of the time, but the timeless nature of power itself, which is always founded upon, and ultimately supported by brute force.

White Eagle

At the beginning of the opera Ivan Khovansky, known to the Russian people as the “White Eagle,” played by Ferruccio Furlanetto, is the great hope of the people and one of the most powerful men in Russia. By the end of Act four he is dead, killed by an assassin of the Tsar. Furlanetto put in a masterful performance in the role. At the start he is standing at the top of the structure, in the center, singing in a confident, authoritarian manner, each word carefully measured, with minimal harmonic support from the orchestra, looking down upon his people, his deep bass reverberating above the orchestra. The crowd responding with a resounding “Glory to the Great Man.” Yet in Act four, Furlanetto was portraying a different Khovansky, a broken, inert man, awaiting his death. His voice had lost its authoritative tone, sounding more irritable and melancholic. Even the Persian dancers failed to lift his gloom, serving only to highlight his depression.

Anger in Power

Ain Anger, as Dosifey, stamped his mark on the role from the moment he appeared on the stage. A large man, with powerful facial features, he exuded authority. Throughout the evening, he bore himself with a noble dignity, his resonant bass always measured and stable, with a solidity that enhanced his uncompromising firmness. His presence demanded respect and he convincingly intervened to check the behavior of others; stopping Ivan and Andrey Khovansky from tormenting Emma, rebuking Susanna for denouncing Marfa, and bringing order to the heated argument between Khovansky and Golitsin. His strong presence matched by his powerful bass were more than a match for Khovansky. Yet, in the one reflective moment offered to him, at the beginning of Act five, “How much sorrow…,” Anger exposed a more human side to Dosifey’s nature, which he characterized with a softer tone and gentler phrasing. He alone of all the main characters was able to see the misery that was in store for his country, and therefore decided to lead his followers into the fire to seek life eternal.

Tenorial Presence

The third of the Tsar’s enemies, Prince Golitsin was played by the Austrian tenor, Herbert Lippert. Prince Golitsin, who also has his eyes fixed on power, doesn’t appear until the beginning of Act two, and immediately launches into a spacious and delicately crafted soliloquy, “Warmest greetings to you, Vasenka,” in which he reads and reflects on letters from his mistress, the Tsarevna, and his mother, during which he covers a wide range of emotions, which he convincingly portrayed with some careful and intelligent phrasing. Underlying Golitsin’s ambitions and forceful nature, and despite his noble birth, there exists a more apprehensive side to his character. His vocal line is full of twists, exposing his uncertainty, the accompanying forceful music being no more than just bluster. Lippert’s voice was strong and expressive, but lost focus occasionally in his top register. In the end, he is sent into exile, escaping death on account of his high status.

Maximum Versatility

The role of Marfa is widely considered to contain Mussorgsky’s best writing for the female voice. In this production, she was played by the Russian mezzo Elena Maximova. The role is certainly a multi-tiered role and requires a great deal of versatility. Already at the beginning of the opera Marfa has a complex history which must inform any singers approach to the role. Firstly and significantly she is of aristocratic birth, and therefore, brings with her a certain degree of confidence and refinement. She has also had an affair with, and been abandoned by, Andrey Khovansky, with whom she still in love. She is now a member of the Old Believers and a prophetess. Throughout the opera she struggles between her love for the undeserving Andrey and God’s salvation. Taking all this on board Maximova produced a wonderfully nuanced portrayal, bringing out the various aspects of her character; sometimes brave and headstrong as in her defence of Emma, sometimes vulnerable as she is attacked by Susanna, yet always struggling with her own conscience. In act four she positively relishes the opportunity to tell Andrey her father is dead, and laughs at his sudden loss of power. In the final act, she embraces death alongside Andrey in the flames. As a prophetess, she predicts doom and gloom to all cross her path. There were, therefore, numerous splendid opportunities for Maximova to show off her skills in this role, and she certainly made the most of them. She has wonderfully lyrical, yet expressive voice, able to move between the registers with ease. Her chest register is dark and warm, but as it climbs upwards it brightens and positively shines, without any loss of power or quality. Although all her singing was of a high quality throughout the evening, her aria “I walked all through the meadows,” was particularly pleasing, if not the most demanding. Based on a traditional folk song, it highlighted the beauty of her timbre and her innate lyricism, her voice floating gently over the muted sounds of the orchestra. It was a fine portrayal of a demanding role.

Sinister Baritone

The Polish baritone, Andrzej Dobber, played the sinister, shadowy figure of Shaklovity, a complex character who, although a true patriot, devoted to Russia, has psychopathic tendencies, and not averse to violence against his own people. Dobber put in a terrific performance, his voice strong across the range, his phrasing secure and perceptive, his dynamic control precise, with pleasing intonation. We first meet him, at the beginning of act one, intimidating and threatening the Scribe. He certainly acted and looked every bit the part. His single-minded intriguing was always undertaken for the betterment of Russia. The apparent contradictions in his behaviour bringing a greater degree of realism to the character. At the centre of act three Dobber delivers Shaklovity’s paean to Mother Russia, a deeply moving monologue, based on a folk song, in which he agonizes over her misfortunes. Dobber’s rendition was first class, his singing laced with grief for his countries inescapable fate, subtly colouring every line to bring out the poignancy and pathos of the piece. When Khovansky is assassinated in Act four, Shaklovity, clearly culpable in the affair, sings with ironic glee, “Glory to the White Swan” his hatred visible, mocking the peasants who mourn his death.

Most Dislikeable & Sympathetic

Of all the characters, it was undoubtedly Andrey Khovansky, played by Christopher Ventris, that came across as the most dislikable. Ventris played Andrey as a spineless, arrogant and self-absorbed bully, who takes advantage of his father’s power. His suicide, alongside Marfa, and the rest of the Old Believers, was as welcome as it was unlikely. Ventris put in a good performance, producing a lyrical, expressive sound. His final words as he descends into the fire are “O,Emma, Emma!”

Thomas Ebenstein put in a persuasive and sympathetic performance as the put-upon Scribe. He acted and sang the part well. His jerky nervous behaviour was mimicked by his bright tenor voice to good effect. Emma, the object of Andrey Khovansky, and then Ivan Khovansky’s attentions, was played by the Australian, Caroline Wennborne, who put in a convincing performance, her strong soprano suiting the part nicely. Lydia Rathkolb as Susanna, the frustrated spinster, whose purpose in life was to seek out and punish sin also performed well, her voice nicely complementing Maximova’s in their verbal exchange at the beginning of Act three. In the minor role of Kuska, Carlos Osuna, put in an energetic performance, notable for the role’s use of speech melody in Act one, which Mussorgsky used extensively in “Boris Godunov,” but rarely used in “Khovanshchina,” preferring a wider range of forms in order to create a more melodic and lyrical sound.

Carrying Momentum

In “Khovanshchina” the chorus plays an extensive and fundamental role. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that a poor choral display would scupper the whole performance, as without a dynamic and energetic display the production would lose all its momentum. It performs the roles of the Streltsy Guard, the Old Believers and most importantly of the suffering Russian people themselves. Under the direction of the Chorus Director, Thomas Lang, the chorus gave a powerful and scintillating display. The suffering and pain of the people was palpable. The hope they invested in Khovansky heart-wrenching. Mussorgsky’s sympathy for the people of his homeland are laid bare. In the final act, in the role of the Old Believers, they sing mournfully and with hope of their forthcoming purification in the fire, and of their faith in God, helping to bring the opera to a glorious end.

The Wiener Staatsoper Orchester, under the direction of Michael Guttler, was on top form, producing a high-energy performance full of verve and vibrancy. Guttler needed to have the orchestra under full control as he had a large cast of soloists and an equally large chorus to manage. It was a task he accomplished with great skill, as he established a delicate balance between all the musical forces, that not only allowed the singers to shine, but succeeded in eliciting a wonderful array of musical textures from the orchestra, and exploited the opera’s rhythmic qualities. This all gave the work a musical flair and sparkle that made it a performance to remember.

So what judgment did Mussorgsky pass on Peter the Great and his program of westernization? As with all great artists and the works they create, it is left to the listener, reader or viewer to make their own judgements. Mussorgsky has presented us with a work of epic proportions, a multi-layered picture, containing the real contradictions we find in all lives and all societies, which we are free to interpret in our own way. Nevertheless, it is clear from the musical associations and the role assigned to the chorus that Mussorgsky sympathizes with Mother Russia and the suffering of her people, and it is this which Dodin uses as his starting point for this production of “Khovanshchina.” The people’s suffering was central to his conception of the work. When the elites fight for power it is the people who suffer, regardless of their political positions. It led to a powerful and convincing reading and alongside the fabulous performances from the singers and orchestra under Guttler it made for a very rewarding evening’s entertainment indeed.


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