Modest Mussorgsky - Khovanshchina
Wiener Staatsoper, 2014
Semyon Bychkov, Lev Dodin, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Christopher Ventris, Herbert Lippert, Andrzej Dobber, Ain Anger, Elena Maximova, Norbert Ernst
Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming - 21 November 2014
It's not exactly an original observation, but there is some validity in the view that Russia is the main character in Mussorgsky's great unfinished opera Khovanshchina. Mussorgsky himself described the work as a "national music drama" and the scope is indeed wide in the nature of the individuals that take part in the drama and in the institutions they represent. The work moreover has as much to say about the character of Mussorgsky's time as it does about historical events in the late 17th century. Whether it has something to say about the character of Russia today is for others to propose, but as far as director Lev Dodin is concerned, the primary purpose of the Vienna State Opera's production seems to be focus on putting Mussorgsky's Russia up on the stage by highlighting the intricacies of the dramatic action, and that in itself is challenge enough.
Set around in the 1680s, the divisions within the ruling forces in Russian society detailed in Khovanshchina are characterised according to three major factions - the Military, the Church and the State - but even within these factions there are divisions and subtle differences. The military are represented by Prince Ivan Khovansky and the Strelsty militia that he commands. They uphold the Old Russia tradition, but their actions have become disreputable and their behaviour is more recognisably characterised by their drinking and brawling. Another side of the conservative Russian tradition is maintained by the Old Believers who are opposed to Orthodox Church reforms and have broken from the state. The young Tsars Peter and Ivan don't actually appear in Khovanshchina, but the authority of the State can be seen in the Petrovtsy guard, while the conflict within it - the Tsarina Sophia similarly unable to be represented on stage - is there in the figure of the progressive liberal views and the inclusive foreign influence supported by Golitsyn.
That alone represents a complex cross-section of the factions struggling to uphold their own image of Russia, but even within this there are two sides to each of the characters. Mussorgsky's work also gives the common people a voice, mostly in the chorus, a chorus moreover that also variously incorporates the Strelsty, the Petrovtsy and the Old Believers. In addition to broad sweeps and the various nuances within this all-encompassing view of Russia, there is one other significant character in the work that gives the work an even wider perspective and that's Marfa. An Old Believer closely connected with its charismatic leader Dosifei, Marfa's personal situation, her difficulties with the unfaithful lover Andrei Khovansky, her run-in with Golitsyn who orders her put to death, her ultimate fate to die by self-immolation with the Believers after the decree of the Tsar, place her at the heart of the drama and give it a mystical and spiritual dimension.
There's a lot to cover then in Khovanshchina then, and Mussorgsky himself never completely got to grips with it, affected no doubt by the conflicts within his own personality and his struggle with alcoholism, leaving the work unfinished and unorchestrated at the time of his death. The huge ambition of the work and the sketches made for it by Mussorgsky have drawn a number of significant Russian composers to attempt to finish it, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovitch and Stravinsky. The intentions for the exact colour of the work may be impossible to determine - particularly as the finale was left incomplete - but it's clear where the focus of the work lies, that the emphasis should be in the strength of its characterisation, and the success of the work lies in how well it manages to bring those varied elements together into a coherent piece. That's no small challenge for either the conductor or the director, but the Vienna State Opera's production achieves an impressive balance that does indeed have that necessary strong Russian character.
As there's a lot of Russia to get up there within the relatively small confines of the Wiener Staatsoper stage, Lev Dodin's production adopts a vertical approach. Backgrounds indicate some of the interiors and exteriors of Red Square, Quarters of Moscow and the living quarters of several of the characters, but the main body of the foreground of the set consists of a large high framework of steel beams and crosses. Within this structure lifts and platforms raise and drop characters according to their hierarchy (the chorus and people most frequently at the bottom of it all) and variably according to their prominence and importance at different stages of the work. It has a solid and impressive appearance without imposing too much of an abstract or conceptual tone on the work, but most importantly, it serves to help make sense of all the manoeuvring and positioning without drawing too much attention to the device.
There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. It allows all the room necessary for the huge choruses and for the interaction between them and the leading characters, but it also tends to enforce a rather static delivery. Everyone ends up standing on platforms, or within small ditches (depending on their position in relation to one another), declaiming in those flowing Mussorgsky spoken rhythms out towards the audience. It's true however that there isn't a great deal of dramatic action in Khovanshchina, and this is part of the difficult nature of the work and the staging of it, but there are some big set-piece scenes that ought to nearly overwhelm in their impact, and this staging does provide the opportunity to showcase such moments.
The success of any production of Khovanshchina lies in the detail and the interpretation, and Dodin's direction doesn't neglect these important factors. It's vital that we are aware of the visible and the invisible forces at work and that we are aware of the good and the bad side of each of the characters. There's nobility and genuine belief in each of them that their actions are not purely self-motivated, but are driven by a firm belief that their way is for the good of the people and for Russia. It's impossible to separate these intentions however from the personal actions and weaknesses of individual motivations and impulses. One of the key scenes, given due importance here, is Shaklovity's Scene 3 aria, 'Ah how unhappy thy lot, O my native land, Russia! Who then may deliver and lift thee out of thy distress? ... O, let not Russia fall into the hands of ruthless foes!"
This is the same motivation that lies behind each of the characters, but each of them - including Shaklovity in his denunciation of the Khovanshchina, the Khovansky affair - are not beyond conspiring in the downfall of others whose views on how to achieve this aim differ from their own. Others have a sense of pride that gets in the way of them seeing the truth, or personal desires - such as Andrei for Emma, and Marfa for Andrei - that conflict with the sincerity of their endeavours. Dodin's direction brings this out and even hints at other such relationships that are not explicitly stated (the Old Believers Marfa and Dosefei are seen in a state of undress together at one point), and it all ties in extremely well with the bigger picture.
Just as important is the unseen presence of the Tsars, who ultimately wield the strong hand necessary at this point of an historical crossroads, but while there is clemency and reconciliation to find a middle way - the Streltsy spared at the last moment - it results inevitably in some brutal treatment of the extreme fringes. The punishment seems also to merit the "offence" with Golitsyn's progressive liberalism towards foreign influence seeing him banished and the Old Believers' firm religious convictions leading the on the path towards martyrdom.
The visible and the invisible, the spoken and the unspoken find perfect balance and expression in the combination of Lev Dodin's direction and Semyon Bychkov's musical direction of a score (using the Shostakovitch edition) that has numerous possibilities for interpretation. On stage, the smaller sense of detail in the characterisation was taken up by a strong cast, particularly in those vital roles, even though most of them are not Russian. Ferruccio Furlanetto sounded a little hoarse in one or two places, but was the embodiment of the declining Ivan Khovansky. The two other vital roles are Dosefei and Marfa and they were given some amount of personality by Ain Anger and a particularly impressive Elena Maximova. Christopher Ventris showed how important a contribution Andrei Khovansky can make to the work as a whole, as indeed do the other true instigators and activists in the drama, Golitsyn, Shaklovity and the Scribe, all very well played.
December live streaming broadcasts at the Wiener Staatsoper include Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA, Johann Strauss' DIE FLEDERMAUS and Verdi's LA TRAVIATA, but the highlight of the month is likely to be Richard Strauss' sumptuous ARABELLA, which has Ulf Schirmer conducting Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production with Anne Schwanewilms in the title role.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video