Religious fanaticism doesn't make for great life on earth, but it does often makes for great opera. And while it may not be the best known in the genre, Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina may be the most beautiful example of this. It certainly feels that way watching and hearing the Metropolitan Opera’s resplendent revival of this work under conductor Kirill Petrenko, the company’s first in over a decade. The title itself is a bit of a misnomer. Roughly translated as the Khovansky Affair, Mussorgsky's unfinished masterpiece is named after a boyar, who leads the Streltsy militia in a bid to control Russia during a 17th century struggle for succession. The recent death of the young tsar Fyodor III has left a power vacuum. Although young Peter has been placed on the throne under the supervision of the regent Sophia, the machinations of the nobility, military, and church pose several threats to his rule. The tsar and his guardian never appear in Khovanshchina but representatives of just about every other interested faction in this huge ensemble cast do and while the rise and fall of Khovansky and his son get the title, the rebellious religious sect refereed to as the “Old Believers” get the final word and dramatic climax in a powerful immolation scene where the faithful die rather than succumb to the tsars’ forces. The opera is as much about political intrigue as it is the passing of an old world into a new more-Westernized one.
So while the plot may be convoluted and somewhat opaque at times, all of this provides for some supremely beautiful music from Mussorgsky and in this version, orchestrations that were completed by Shostakovich. The Metropolitan Opera orchestra always sounds great. In this run under Petrenko, they sound even better and its likely the best performance they’ve given this entire season. They are abetted by the enormous Metropolitan Opera chorus who’ve taken a challenging musical text and with the help of director Donald Palumbo nailed the audience to their seats with their big, fluid sound. If there is a testament to Palumbo's work with the orchestra during his tenure at the Met, this is it.
The largely Russian, Georgian, and Ukrainian cast is the kind of who’s who in Russian opera that only the Met can assemble this side of Moscow. There is not a dud among them and each soloist seemed to up the artistic ante of the show on their costars. Olga Borodina has the central female role of Marfa, an old believer who is in love with the younger Khovansky, sung here by Misha Didyk. Her lower range gets a work out in this show and it was admittedly formidable with a rich, burnished sound. And while she is unfortunately costumed like Nicole Sullivan for the last third of the evening, everything about her appearance left under her control was flawless. Marfa’s inspirational guidance comes from the mysterious Dosifei was handled by Met favorite, and Borodina's husband, Ildar Abdrazakov. His Verdi roles are well regarded, but his Russian roles are something else all together. But the wealth of male vocal talent didn’t end there. George Gagnidze was regal as Shaklovity and Anatoli Kotscherga stole several scenes as the elder Khovansky. Vladimir Galouzine represented the nobility as Golitsin and his conflict with Khovansky in Scene 2 bristled with danger.
If it weren't for the staging itself, the evening would have been perfect. Though not as overblown and overdecorated as one of those Zeffirelli travesties, August Everding’s now-stale 1985 production looks its age. The period costumes are lovely and well-preserved, but as a rule of thumb I say if the fabric of your backdrops has begun to wrinkle and pucker to where it can easily be seen by the audience, it’s time for an upgrade. There are a few of those miniature diorama rooms the Met so loved in the 80s and 90s as well, but the immolation scene with the chorus arranged on two levels in a small wooden cabin in the woods still stirs consternation over people willing to take such extreme actions in light of their faith. While Khovanshchina may not engender the controversy of Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer which is working its way to New York for a future season, its hard to ignore some of the parallels. Mussorgsky's old believers may not be terrorists, but their convictions due have spectacularly disturbing results and what the opera lacks in contemporary urgency, it makes up for in sheer scope and grandeur. Don’t miss this one which has four more performances through March 17th.