Modest Mussorgsky - Khovanshchina
Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2017
Michael Güttler, Lev Dodin, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Christopher Ventris, Herbert Lippert, Andrzej Dobber, Ain Anger, Elena Maximova
Staatsoper Live - 11 September 2017
New productions of an opera often reveal different facets and new perspectives on any given work, but you often find that you can also continue to find something new when you revisit a revival of a good production. Lev Dodin's fairly static production of Khovanshchina however, first seen at the Vienna State Opera in 2014, doesn't strike you as one that would have a great deal more to offer. Even if it doesn't bring anything new to the table - when even the cast line-up is identical to that seen in 2014 - Khovanshchina is nonetheless a work that constantly provokes new observations and a deepening appreciation for Mussorgsky's unfinished epic.
It may be quite static, the performers all contained within rising platforms that give no room to move around the stage, but the set designs for Lev Dodin's production of Khovanshchina are visually impressive and do prove to be a good way of layering and revealing the Russian historical and national complexities of the work. The various factions that are competing for power and influence in late 17th century Russia are clearly marked out in a structure of beams and platforms that not only indicates their position in relation to their ambitions, but it also charts their rise and decline, often down into the depths of the pit through a trapdoor in the stage.
Designed this way, it's easy to differentiate between the three main factions competing with each other to determine the direction that Russia will follow at this turbulent point in history. The set for Act II arranges them in a clear hierarchical position. On the upper level is the governing class represented by Galitsin who is hoping that he can open up the country to progressive western influence. Below him are the military under the control of Prince Ivan Khovansky who are suspicious of foreign interests and hold firm to the old traditions, but the soldiers are becoming undisciplined and difficult to control. Below them is Dosifei who leads the religious faction of Old Believers opposed to reforms.
It's not necessarily that these forces, beliefs and traditions are distinct as much as they represent a layering of true Russian ideals that sit uneasily alongside one another. As such all the people of Russia also have a voice in Khovanshchina and Lev Dodin's vertical production at least provides the space for all these vital components of Russian society to fill the stage, showing the complexity and incompatibility of these ideals without the stage becoming cluttered and the plot incomprehensible. It does mean that there is a lot of static exposition, but that's inherent in the work itself and it's vital to understand this in order to get to the heart of Khovanshchina.
The heart of Khovanshchina is of course the heart of Russia, and the challenge to put that up on the stage is one that Mussorgsky struggled with in this unfinished work, as did several other notable Russian composers (the Vienna production uses the Shostakovitch version) who have attempted to polish and complete this great epic. More than just conveying the history of the competing forces vying for power in Russia during the 1680s, Khovanshchina also attempts to capture something of the mystical and spiritual side of Russia in Marfa, and combined it should paint a picture of Russia on a grand scale as something that also has relevance to today. What seems to be true then is true now, the opera showing the true scale of the horror that Russia must endure and suffer when power over it falls into the wrong hands.
Its ambitions mean that Khovanshchina consequently doesn't conform to standard operatic plot development, nor indeed to a conventional musical structure. Characters don't so much grow as reveal the personal human weaknesses behind their grand ambitions and ideals. Each are taken down in their prime before they can achieve their goal, or rather their weaknesses expose them and lead them inevitably to their fate. Andrei Khovansky is largely ineffective after Act I after his encounter with the foreign girl Emma. His father Prince Ivan Khovansky seems to be weary of the struggle and is killed in Act IV while indulging in the distraction of Syrian dancing girls. Act IV also brings about the death of Galitsin.
For Dosifei, it's the conflict between his spiritual religious beliefs and his feelings for Marfa that renders him out of the running as far as uniting the people behind his vision of Russia, and the act of self-immolation that takes Marfa, Andrei and Dosifei is a kind of cleansing that clears the way for Russia to arise again out of the ashes. Russia proves to be bigger than any individual in Khovanshchina, even greater than the young Tsars Peter and Ivan who are not seen in the opera. Russia prevails, but it's at a considerable cost.
There's not a great deal more to be said about the singing performances in the 2017 revival of Khovanshchina, which retains the same cast as the 2014 premiere performances. Ferruccio Furlanetto is still a force to be reckoned with as Khovansky, Elena Maximova fulfils the vital role of Marfa impressively in terms of her singing and as far as suggesting the other spiritual dimension of this character. Herbert Lippert seemed to make a greater impression this time too as Galitsin, and Christopher Ventris and Ain Anger reliably reprise their roles of Andrei and Dosifei. Michael Güttler took over the conducting of the Vienna orchestra for this revival and brought out the dynamic with an extra punch on the big dramatic and choral pieces, but elsewhere it didn't seem to have the same coherence as a piece that Semyon Bychkov's conducting achieved in the 2014 production.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live