Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Metropolitan Opera – Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina. March 13, 2012.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Balcony (Seat A117, $92.50).

Story.  The setting of the story is Russia in the late 1600s.  Interweaved into the story are three main characters: Ivan Khovansky and the streltskys, Dosifei and the Old Believers, and Murfa. After supporting the installation of Ivan and Peter as joint rulers, Ivan Khovansky and his son Andrei lead the streltskys to rebel against them.  Towards the end of the story, Ivan Khovansky is killed inside his residence, but the streltskys are pardoned by Tsar Peter.  During the same time period, the Old Believers are being persecuted, and the Imperial Court has decreed they be killed.  Instead of surrendering, their leader Dosifei leads them to a mass suicide by setting fire to themselves.  Murfa, an Old Believer, has some mythical powers that allow her to predict the future, including that of Prince Vasily Golitsyn, lover of the Tsars sister Sophia.  Golitsyn tries to drown Murfa after she gives him a horrific reading, but to no avail.  Murfa is in love with Andrei Khovansky and eventually gets him to commit suicide with her and the other Old Believers.

Conductor – Kirill Petrenko. A Public Scribe – John Easterlin; Shaklovity, a boyar – George Gagnidze; Prince Ivan Khovansky, leader of the streltsy, an Old Believer – Anatoli Kotscherga; Emma, a young girl from the German quarter – Wendy Bryn Harmer; Prince Andrei Khovansky, son of Ivan Khovansky – Misha Didyk; Marfa, Andrei’s fiancée, an Old Believer – Olga Borodina; Dosifei, spiritual leader of the Old Believers – Ildar Abdrazakov; Prince Vasily Golitsyn, a statesman; Susanna – Maria Gavrilova.

The Program Front Page also tells us that the Opera’s libretto was written by the composer, the orchestration by Dmitri Shostakovich, and the final scene by Igor Stravinsky.  Mussorgsky died at age 42 partly due to his alcoholism, and he left behind an incomplete manuscript that was for the most part unorchestrated.

The story is based on the real-life character Prince Ivan Khovansky, with the term “Khovanschchina” meaning Khovansky Intrigue, referring to his plan to stage a coup.  The historical accounts are complicated enough, and on top of that was Mussorgsky’s effort to weave different stories together, resulting in a rather unwieldy plot.  If I had just copied the synopsis found in the Program Notes over onto this blog, I don’t think things would have been that much clearer.  In any case, Anne’s take of the Program Notes is that Russia itself is the protagonist, and the opera shows how history claims its victims who are powerless to stop its inexorable march.  And, as far as I could tell, there is no answer to the question of “who won?”  To echo what the Program Notes says about the chorus, instead of the “one voice” we get from the chorus in Nabucco (signifying the struggle of the Hebrew people,) here we have different groups with different objectives: the strelskys, the Muscovites, the Old Believers all seemed to want different things.  A storyline that complicated may work in the hands of a master like Tolstoy, but I am not sure Mussorgsky could ever pull it off.  And, in the case of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Prokofiev in turning the epic into an opera had to simplify it drastically.

The overture is quite unexpected, sounding tonal and pleasant.  But my hope that this would be a performance with memorable tunes was soon quashed: the music quickly degenerated into a fragmented, dissonant sound used by Mussorgsky to represent the chaos and darkness of the story.  Sprinkled throughout the opera were the many attempts that tried to go “positive,” these were quickly overwhelmed by the dark mood permeating throughout.  One exception, of course, was the Persian dance in Scene 4, but Ivan Khovansky was shot at the end of the scene.  All this should work very well in theory, and it evidently did work for many people, if what I overheard what they said during the intermissions was any indication.  For Anne and I, alas, that simply meant we had to fight to stay awake.  You get some idea of what is going on, but there are many gaps that leave one scratching one’s head.  For instance, I just realized that Ivan Khovansky was killed on order of the tsars’ sister Sophia, with whom he was aligned for a while.  During the performance, I had no idea who did it; and I still don't understand why.

The conductor and most soloists are from Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine.  So I assume the Russian was perfect, of course the only word I can make out is “Nyet.”  We had heard Ildar Abdrazakov several times, including the roles of Henry VIII in Anna Bolena and Attila.  And we had seen Petrenko conduct a couple of times before also.  In any case, the singing was uniformly good.  I especially enjoyed Olga Borodina as Marfa.  I am still a bit puzzled by how sometimes the sound would come across really loud at certain locations on the stage.  For tonight it was on the right close to a balcony-like structure.

The set used was designed in 1985.  While it still works, as it should, it is interesting that the Met didn’t try to refresh it for this run.  Perhaps they ran out of money after spending a great fortune on the Ring Cycle?  One would expect to see the Onion Domes of the Krelim if the Scene is the Red Square, and one would be disappointed.  What we got was a close up view of the columns.  The immolation scene leaves a lot to the audience’s imagination.  There is this pile of wood in the middle, surrounded by a hundred or so Old Believers holding candles in their hands.  A bright light and smoke would tell the audience that the pile is on fire.  Basically the same concept as the scene in Gotterdammerung, but not to as good an effect.  They might just as well learn something from the new Ring production.

The concert started at 7 pm and didn’t end until about 11:25 pm.  With two intermissions and several scene changes I would guess the opera itself was a bit over three hours.  I suspect unless this is turned into something on the scale of the Ring, lengthening the opera by an hour or so won’t help with clarifying what is happening, given how discombobulated the story is at this stage.

There are some moments that someone fully engaged with this opera will find poignant, but I don’t really get them.  I would have enjoyed the opera a lot more if it is not trying to say so many things at the same time.

The New York Times reviewer loved the opera, calling it “one of the best things the Met has done this season.”  Sounds very much like the people sitting around me, including the lady sitting next to me who seemed clueless most of the time (from the questions she was asking her companion) but ended up applauding very enthusiastically.  And now that I have read the review, another person was just quoting what she read!  I do like the reviewer’s description of the Persian dance: “bland new choreography.”

The reviewer Zachary Wolfe also says Gotterdammerung left him "cold," but he didn't write the review of that opera for the Times, Tommasini did.  I guess it is not surprising that different people get different takes from the same performance.

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