MUSSORGSKY Khovanshchina & • Michael Boder, cond; Elena Zaremba (Marfa); Nataliya Tymchenko (Emma); Vladimir Ognovenko (Prince Ivan Khovansky); Vladimir Galouzine (Prince Andrei Knovansky); Nikolai Putilin (Shaklovity); Vladimir Vaneev (Read more class="ARIAL12i">Dosifei); Graham Clark (Scribe); Barcelona Teatro Liceo O & Ch • BBC/OPUS ARTE 989 (2 DVDs: 144:11) Live: Barcelona 5/26 & 29/2007
& Interview with Michael Boder (6:55)
Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, his difficult, unruly stepchild of an opera that was left unfinished at his death in 1881, has never had much popularity or success either on the stage or on records. In fact, about 35 years ago I listened to a recording of it (don’t ask me which one, I honestly don’t remember) and was distinctly underwhelmed, but I always thought to myself, “Perhaps it would be different if I could see it on the stage.”
Well, here is a performance good enough to make believers (but not necessarily Old Believers!) out of almost anyone. Brilliantly conducted by Michael Broder, a name entirely unknown to me, this performance moves with a tautness and cohesion that belies its disorganized state at the time of Mussorgsky’s death in 1881. And while the cast lacks the glamorous names of its video predecessors, particularly the 1979 Bolshoi performance with Irina Arkhipova, Yevgeny Nesterenko, Alexander Vedernikov, and Yuri Mazurok, it scores greatly over them by tightening the drama and putting the focus on the emotions conveyed by the music rather than by the occasionally weak libretto.
Director Stein Winge was torn between wanting to retain the historicity of the original story and updating it to illustrate its essential timelessness. His solution was to stage it in the early 1950s, and what strikes the viewer strongly is not how “modern” everything looks but how antiquated the dress of the peasants and the “Old Believers” was then, and remains today—a link to the past that indicates how much they are still tied to it. And Winge, like Mussorgsky himself, realized that the basic tragedy of the Russian people is not their desire to break free from the old feudal system, but their stubborn desire to return to it. They feel protected when a Strong Leader runs the show and tells them what to do, even when members of their ranks die or are imprisoned as a result.
Winge describes in the booklet how he tried to bring out the drama of the plot and Mussorgsky’s music even when the libretto worked against it. As an illustration, he mentions the political struggle in the second act. “We hear Ivan Khovansky, Solitsyn and Dosifei,” he writes, “but if we listen closely to what they are saying, the libretto proves to be very weak. The music is very powerful, but their discussion comes to nothing . . . . We worked very hard to try to instill an interesting evolution into this discussion.” In tightening the score for dramatic purposes, he cut the pastor scene and the one with Susanna, and though most of the score uses the orchestration by Shostakovich, the final scene uses the musical finale by Guerassim Voronkov, which is quieter, illustrating the Old Believers’ resignation and acceptance of death.
The cumulative impact is simply staggering, not least because each of the principals is a superb actor. Central to this work is not always the chorus, as in Boris Godunov, but also the Scribe who represents the disturbed feelings of the people. In this role, British character tenor Graham Clark is awesome, but in their own ways so are tenor Vladimir Galouzine (Andrei), baritones Ognovenko (Ivan Khovansky) and Putilin (Shaklovity), mezzo Elena Zaremba (Marfa), and bass Vladimir Vaneev (Dosifei). I’ve noted in other reviews how Zaremba, once one of the greatest Russian mezzos, has experienced vocal deterioration over time, picking up a harshness and unsteadiness of tone, but one cannot dismiss her Marfa on those grounds, because she brings so much to the character. Marfa is a fanatic, she’s not in her right mind, and she likes it that way!
One scene in particular made a tremendous impression on me. Ivan calls for the “Persian dancing girls” to come out and cheer him up, and as they dance he interacts with them, swaying his body in rhythm (though certainly not doing ballet himself). This small but telling scene indicates just how hard Winge worked on integrating every aspect of the characters to present a story that was not only logical but close to realism.
From a dramatic standpoint, this DVD also scores over the 1989 performance conducted by Claudio Abbado (Image), despite the presence of such outstanding (for the time) singing actors as Nicolai Ghiaurov (Dosifei), Vladimir Atlantov (Andrei), and Heinz Zednik (Scribe), which was rather bizarrely staged with a pretense for historical accuracy not realized. And I say it again, the conducting of Michael Boder is simply staggering. He makes the drama coalesce as well as explode at the right moments; the cumulative effect is riveting. In the bonus interview, he explains how they stitched the opera together from Mussorgsky’s “bits and pieces,” as well as how he used Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration of the Prelude as well as “some ideas from Stravinsky . . . we followed, from the singers, some of the ideas they wanted to do.” And though the chorus is not always the focal point of the people, it is nevertheless very important, and I must give special praise to choral director José Luis Basso for his extraordinarily fine work. He managed to subjugate the often over-bright timbres of his Spanish sopranos and tenors to produce a reasonably fine “Russian sound.” If you have any interest at all in Mussorgsky, or the eternal struggle between political and religious power figures, this DVD is quite simply indispensable.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Ivan Khovansky – Vladimir Ognovenko
Andrei Khovansky – Vladimir Galouzine
Vasily Golitsyn – Robert Brubaker
Shaklovity – Nikolai Putilin
Dosifei – Vladimir Vaneev
Marfa – Elena Zaremba
Stein Winge, stage director
- Interview with Michael Boder
- Illustrated synopsis and cast gallery
Picture format: NTSC 16:9 anamorphic
Sound format: DTS 5.1 / LPCM stereo
Region code: 0 (all regions)
Menu language: English
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Catalan
Running time: ca. 5 hours 50 mins
No. of DVDs: 2 Read less
Works on This Recording
Khovanshchinaby Modest Mussorgsky Performer:
Robert Brubaker (Tenor),
Vladimir Ognovenko (Bass),
Nikolai Putilin (Baritone),
Vladimir Galusin (Tenor),
Vladimir Vaneev (Bass),
Elena Zaremba (Mezzo Soprano)
Barcelona Teatro Liceu Orchestra,
Barcelona Teatro Liceu Chorus
Period: Romantic Written: 1872-1880; Russia Date of Recording: 05/2007 Venue: Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona