Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina in Berlin was quite simply, outstanding in every way

GermanyGermany Mussorgsky, Khovanshchina: Soloists, Staatsoper Children’s Chorus (director: Vinzenz Weissenburger), Staatsopernchor Berlin (director: Dani Juris), Staatskapelle Berlin / Simone Young (conductor). Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 2.6.2024. (MB)

Ivan Khovansky (Mika Kares) © Monika Rittershaus

Who writes? In history, as in its dramatisation, the question is crucial, its answer often complex. It is present, overtly, in Pimen’s chronicle in Boris Godunov, and it takes centre stage, later moving rightward, leftward, and above in Claus Guth’s new production of Mussorgsky’s successor work, Khovanshchina for Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden. There is also the fateful – perhaps more so than Marfa, in fortune-telling guise to Prince Golitsky – figure of the scrivener. How much, if at all, does his writing-for-hire set in course a series of unintended, world-historical consequences? Writing can be considered more broadly and narrowly, in close relation to what we now consider to constitute a ‘text’ — and, of course, reading. At any rate, opening in the modern Kremlin, a statue of Peter the Great towering (as, eventually, would the two-metre-tall historical Peter) over an empty desk, with some goings on but the main character – probably wisely – never shown, just as the Romanovs could not be in Mussorgsky’s time. A functionary, seemingly somewhere between secretary and researcher, provides historical information on the characters and drama that will unfold, transcribed for us (in German and in English) on screens above the action. Given the knowledge of Russian history Mussorgsky’s drama more or less assumes (though also elides), the conceit serves both as framing device and more straightforwardly as source of useful background — or should it be commentary? Who writes, how and why? The framing is not overdone, though; part of me actually wished more had been made of it. Guth seems keener to highlight the work’s fragmentary tendencies, if anything drawing attention to the years passed between acts – themselves Rimsky-Korsakov’s grouping, whose reorganisation has not yet been generally accepted – where Mussorgsky, up to a point, brings them together. Someone other than the composer has to write here, in any case, and it will in practice prove to be more than a single person.

If other Romanovs remain offstage, Peter, both as a young boy and as a co-tsar on the brink of adulthood sometimes watches, striding across the stage and (so I was told) also from a box above it (though sightlines prevented me and, I presume, a large part of the audience from seeing that). Otherwise, the action proceeds on the  stage pretty much as one might ‘expect’. It is difficult to imagine even the most hardened traditionalist objecting to the costumes – which, along with set designs, is usually all such a person cares about – but they are not fetishised. This forms, after all, some sort of investigation from the present as to how Peter attained and consolidated power, removing those who might have opposed him. Sometimes we see on film images from later Russian history. I can see the point, but I am not sure they add much, especially in the toppling of a statue of Lenin. (It could well be said that the dissolution of the USSR was a catastrophe for Russia, and not necessarily for the reasons Vladimir Putin would say it was, but it was unclear how that fitted in here.) Generic historical crowd scenes were less of a problem, presumably intending to show the Petrine settlement to be less conclusive than some would have claimed, though whether such doubling of the stage action is desirable was less than entirely clear. Likewise, whilst I think I can see the point of having Khovansky kill the Persian slaves, in a stylised representation of the bloodbath of order, restoration, progress (call it what you will), it arguably seems an arbitrary way of doing so.

A scene from Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina © Monika Rittershaus

A firing squad turning brutally on the ‘pardoned’ Streltsy at the end of the fourth act is a fine, properly harrowing touch, serving both to prepare the way for the self-immolation of the Old Believers in the final act but also, I think, to suggest these are different. Presenting their martyrdom as ‘resistance’, though, seems an unfortunate secularism, sadly typical of so many directors’ inability to take religious belief seriously. The idea that the contemporary ‘project’ breaks down is good: an almost Nietzschean view on the alleged ‘uses’ of history, one might say. The act, though, is real, moving, awe-inspiring, yet no more ‘resistance’ as is generally understood than the martyrdom in the final scene of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. It is more political than that, surely a crucial (and often overlooked, perhaps deliberately so, not least by Rimsky and his successor Shostakovich) note of questioning the entire Petrine and post-Petrine project of Westernisation. Peter’s troops initiate the apocalypse for some, a far stranger and more powerful drama than is allowed here. At the end, though, once the Old Believers have burned – use of video effective in conveying the nature of the act, if less so its horror – we return to the modern Kremlin. If the ‘lesson’ has been abandoned as useless or at least unhelpful, what, one might ask, has been the point? It still happened, one might reply; we have still been shown someone’s record, at least. And at least we do not become too entangled in the slightly embarrassing ‘love story’, which, in the person of Marfa does its bit to bind things together yet is surely a little too ‘operatic’ for comfort.

There is, also, the question of who compiles, orchestrates, and so on. Listening to the first-act Prelude in Rimsky’s orchestration, immediately before writing this, I remain far from convinced of the superiority of Shostakovich’s version of the opera (save for reversing Rimsky’s cuts and orchestrating those additional sections). It certainly has its merits, but so does Rimsky’s, and I cannot say I find it comes closer on the whole – sometimes it does; sometimes it does not – to my fantasy of how Mussorgsky ‘should’ sound. Perhaps, though, I am guilty of taking Boris Godunov – and increasingly its earliest version, given its recent favour – as a model, when Khovanshchina is a different work, rather as if one were to approach Lulu expecting it to be Wozzeck. There are also, of course, issues of performance, whichever version is used. I should dearly love one day to hear the work of Ravel and Stravinsky in full, but for now at least we had Stravinsky’s extraordinary ending, somehow more Mussorgskian even than Mussorgsky, and infinitely truer to any plausible view of the work’s dramatic message. (Shostakovich, as Richard Taruskin observed, not only ‘ratified Rimsky’s [melioristic] view’ of the Petrine reforms but ‘even managed to strengthen it’. The composer of The Rite of Spring showed himself better able to imagine and communicate the world of the Old Believers.

Such choices were, I assume, the province of conductor Simone Young, probably in discussion with Guth. Young’s own conducting and the playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin were excellent throughout, the latter sounding as golden as it did transparent, and without loss to precision. All was well placed and well balanced. Changes of metre, the lifeblood of Mussorgsky’s conversational recitative, were throughout so well handled that one barely noticed them as such; they are not, after all, the jolts of Stravinskian neoclassicism, but rather founded in a speech rhythm very different from the German ‘norm’ (and which, of course, proved highly influential upon the younger Stravinsky in particular). This happens vocally, of course, but at least as much in the orchestral ‘accompaniment’ (the Italian accompagnato seems wildly out of place here).

Mention of things Italian brings me to my principal reservation: one of taste more than anything fundamental. Khovanshchina is considerably more inclined than Boris to more conventional, even Italianate, vocal-melodic writing. This seemed to be the cue to a more generally Verdian approach, especially during the first three acts. Elements of Wagner – more coincidental than anything else, I suspect – surfaced from time to time too, as did slightly disconcerting kinship with Tchaikovsky. Something rawer is certainly possible and, to my ears, more ‘authentically’ Mussorgskian, textual issues notwithstanding. I should not exaggerate, though, and there could be no doubting either the sincerity or, on its own terms, the success of Young’s approach with the orchestra, nor indeed the warmth with which the audience received it.

The cast was excellent too, headed by a charismatic, characteristically detailed Mika Kares as Ivan Khovansky. Taras Shtonda exuded star quality in what can hardly be other than a charismatic role, that of Dosifey, leader of the Old Believers. Stephan Rügamer imparted his usual intelligence to the part of the thwarted reformer Golitsin. (His could, perhaps even should, have been the better path, but it was not to be.) George Gagnidze’s Shakolvity shone on each of his appearances, not only his moving account of Russia’s troubled history. Marina Prudenskaya gave everything, returned with interest, to an all-encompassing performance as Marfa, finely complemented by Evelin Novak’s characterful, tender Lutheran Emma and a spirited Susanna from Anna Samuil. Andrei Popov offered a well-judged Scrivener: one could sympathise with the predicament his lowborn status presented and appreciate why he might sing in more noble, even florid style, without losing sight of his fundamental opportunism. If I felt Najmiddin Mavlyanov’s Andrey at times a little less sharply drawn, he came more into his own later on and likewise relished the opportunities a more Italianate performance offered.

Dancers, well-choreographed by Sommer Ulrickson, contributed intelligently to the greater drama too. It was, though, the outstanding chorus, expertly trained by Dani Juris, that truly crowned the performance: dramatically, harmonically based, roots in a Russian past that may or may not be invented, but certainly came to life in the here and now. It was, quite simply, outstanding in every way. Surely in this work, as in Boris, there is a fundamental lesson on the people’s suffering to be learned therein.

Mark Berry

Director – Claus Guth
Set designs – Christian Schmidt
Costumes – Ursula Kudrna
Lighting – Olaf Freese
Choreography – Sommer Ulrickson
Video – Roland Horvath
Live camera – Jan Speckenbach, Marlene Blumert
Dramaturgy – Yvonne Gebauer, Rebecca Graitl

Prince Ivan Khovansky – Mika Kares
Prince Andrey Khovansky – Najmiddin Mavlyanov
Prince Vasily Golitsin – Stephan Rügamer
Boyar Fyodor Shaklovity – George Gagnidze
Dosifey – Taras Shtonda
Marfa – Marina Prudenskaya
Emma – Evelin Novak
Scrivener – Andrei Popov
Susanna – Anna Samuil
Varsonofyev – Roman Trekel
Kuzka – Andrés Moreno García
Streshnev – Johan Krogius
Two Streltsy – Taehan Kim, Friedrich Hamel
Henchman – Dmitri Plotnikov

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