Friday, February 01, 2013

Sweeping, Grand, Somber, Majestic, Brutal

Until last week, I had never attended a performance of Mussorgsky’s “Khovanshchina”.

I have never seen the Metropolitan Opera production, first presented in 1985 and revived last season after a long absence, and I have never seen the Wiener Staatsoper production, mounted for Claudio Abbado in 1989 but no longer in the Staatsoper repertory.

The New York production is generally considered to be quite good, yet the retired Vienna production enjoyed an even higher reputation, and was thought by many to be one of the most significant Staatsoper productions of the post-war period. Vienna’s “Khovanshchina” was not part of the Staatsoper’s 2001-2002 season; if it had been, I would have attended one or more of the “Khovanshchina” performances while studying in Vienna that academic year.

Last Tuesday, at the Paris Opera (at L'Opéra Bastille), we caught the first of seven scheduled performances of “Khovanshchina”—all but one of which had sold out not long after the booking period opened. The Paris “Khovanshchina” was the first revival of an acclaimed Andrei Serban production that had premiered in 2001 when James Conlon was Music Director at the house (and was not a new production, contrary to what we had believed back in the second week of December, when we had booked our trip).

“Khovanshchina” is a history opera—and a remarkably accurate one. It tells the story of the 1682 Moscow Uprising, a civil war in all but name, the outcome of which allowed Russia to begin its long period of Westernization (a process still incomplete).

“Khovanshchina” is sweeping, and grand, and somber, and majestic, and brutal. It is, I believe, a great opera, greater even than “Boris Godunov”.

The opera is not structured like Western drama; there is no conventional plot, there are no primary characters that dominate the action, there is no linearity to the proceedings. “Khovanshchina” is a series of near-random, pageant-like formal tableaux, most involving large crowds, that depict the various forces tearing the Russian nation and Russian people apart in the late 17th Century. One need not grasp all the particulars of each scene in order to appreciate the swelling power—and ultimate tragedy—of the work.

I find “Khovanshchina” gripping from beginning to end—for me, the four-hour performance passed in a flash—and others must cherish the opera, too, because “Khovanshchina” has become a major box-office draw in the West in the last thirty years.

Paris used Shostakovich’s 1959 arrangement and instrumentation of the score, which has now completely supplanted the earlier Rimsky-Korsakov version. In recent years, many companies using the Shostakovich have substituted Stravinsky’s 1913 arrangement and instrumentation of the final scene—Vienna always used the Stravinsky finale, and the Met used the Stravinsky finale for the first time last season—but Paris continues to use the “pure” Shostakovich edition.

Aside from one small role, the Paris Opera had engaged an all-Russian cast for this revival. I found every singer convincing if not exceptional; two, in particular, stood out: Larissa Diadkova as Marfa and Vladimir Galouzine as Prince Andrei, both of whom offered searing physical and vocal portrayals. I cannot recall the last time I saw performances so fine and so praiseworthy.

The conductor was Michail Jurowski, once a major name in Russia but now less well-known than his son, Vladimir, also a conductor.

I had never previously heard Jurowski. Jurowski’s career has not gained much traction in the West. He has held nothing but minor posts since leaving Russia; he seldom obtains prestige engagements (“Khovanshchina” was Jurowski’s Paris Opera debut).

I was diffident about Jurowski’s work in “Khovanshchina”. His tempi were much slower than Abbado’s in the live Abbado recording, and musical tension often dissipated—and there was no compensating increase in elemental power (which I believe is what Jurowski was going for). Jurowski was unable to provide the high orchestral finish, including the miraculous exploration of timbre and texture, that Abbado had brought to “Khovanshchina”—but Jurowski was contending with the players of the Paris Opera orchestra, whereas Abbado had had the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic at his disposal.

I was impressed with the chorus of the Paris Opera—and “Khovanshchina” provides a genuine workout for chorus. According to the Paris Opera program booklet, there were 120 singers in the “Khovanshchina” chorus, all full-time choristers at the Paris Opera.

The physical production was a satisfactory one. The costuming was especially good: colorful, rich-looking—and easily differentiating for the viewer the various social milieus of the players in each scene. The stage design was moderately attractive, and provided large playing spaces—but it was all too obvious that the company had been unable or unwilling to devote to “Khovanshchina” the full resources the work deserves. The stage settings had clearly been devised and constructed with cost-control as the overriding principle.

I learned an interesting fact from the program booklet: the Paris Opera had first staged “Khovanshchina”—in the Rimsky-Korsakov version—in 1923 (the performances were sung in French), decades before any other company in the West took up the work. The conductor for that 1923 Paris Opera production: Serge Koussevitzky.


  1. I adore "Khovanshchina." You are right: this opera is better than "Boris," which has its moments, but, as a whole, does not rise to the steady level of the Composer's last work.

    I personally prefer Stravinsky's finale over Shostakovich's.

  2. I could sit through “Khovanshchina” once a year for the next thirty years. It is that rich a work. (In comparison, someone would have to pay me to sit through “Traviata” even once over the next thirty years.)

    I do not know enough about the work to express a preference for the Stravinsky or Shostakovich. However, I think it would be interesting at some point to experience the Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel/Stravinsky and Shostakovich versions in succession (not that such an opportunity will ever present itself).