Modest Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina (Rimsky-Korsakov version of 1883)

“National Music Drama” in five acts. Running Time: 2 hours 43 minutes.


Another post I did a while ago. All of the posts are scheduled randomly and so I finished most of them weeks or even months before they will appear.

Sir Denis Forman did review the Shostakovich 1959 orchestration of this opera, but there are sizeable differences between that and the Rimsky-Korsakov version, namely it is over half an hour shorter. This review is specifically of the 1978 studio recording from Sofia, Bulgaria conducted by Atanas Margaritov.

SETTING: Moscow, 1682. There isn’t so much of a plot as a series of historical pictorial scenes. The narrative is mostly illogical with a large number of one-off characters and even the ones who show up more than once or twice lack overall character development but the main ones are Prince Ivan Khovansky (bass, the titular character) who is head of the Streltsy guard of Tsarina Sophia, the regent of reigning child Tsars Peter and Ivan, his son Andrei (tenor) who is a skirt-chaser, his former mistress Marfa (mezzo-soprano) who is a follower of the Old Believer guru Dosifey (bass), the boyar Shaklovity (baritone) who hates what everyone is doing to Russia and who eventually has the elder Khovansky  killed, and Prince Golitsin (tenor) who only really appears in the second act and represents the new Russia even though he gets himself exiled in the fourth act. Other than the mass immolation of the Old Believers that occurs at the very end of the opera as they would otherwise be captured by Tsarist troops, not much else happens.


ACT 1: Red Square, dawn. (39 minutes)

0: The Prelude * is entitled Dawn over the Moscow River and is dominated by the strings, upper woodwinds, and horn. It has a single primary theme led by the oboe and then handed off to the clarinet before the gong sounds fifteen times all the while this one rather charming theme gets reworked continuously in various ways, some charmingly, some more dooming. A very quiet opener, I keep feeling it is an homage on the prelude to Lohengrin with strong similarities (even near exact phrasing) to the Good Friday Music from Parsifal (although this is co-incidental seeing that Mussorgsky was dead before anyone ever heard Parsifal). Then, stage band trumpet call and we are into the opera with Kuzka (one of the streltsy) sings off his drunkenness as two other Streltsy discuss the previous night of rowdy behaviour.

8: Ej ty strocilo! A scribe arrives and is hired by Shaklovity to write a letter * denouncing the streltsy and their head Prince Ivan Khovansky as citizenry are heard in the background.

15: Och ty rodnaja matuska Rus The first really great item in the opera ** as the chorus of Muscovites come on sing their warlike address to the Motherland.

17: Deti, deti moi! Prince Khovansky arrives and makes his address (including multiple invocations to the Almighty) to the Streltsy who reply in a sort of quasi-Fascist militaristic way *.

19: Slava lebedju! The chorus then gives us another good number in the Hymn to the White Swan ** as they temporarily go off.

22: Ostav te! Finally, the first bit of actual action and not just choral pantomime as Emma (a German girl) comes running trying to escape the sexual overtures of Prince Andrei Khovansky *. The soprano shrieking is interrupted by the arrival of Marfa (the former fiancee of Andrei, now a fanatical Old Believer). He tries to pull a knife on her, but she beats him and he gives way as the Streltsy and daddy Khovansky come back on.

30: Stoj! Besnovatye! Andrei tries to protest his father taking Emma for himself (apparently she is hot stuff for some reason) but they are all interrupted by the arrival of the dreaded Dosifey *, the leader of the Old Believers and something of a guru for Marfa who entrusts Emma to her protection. A lot of plain chant-like basso closes the act, apart from when he orders his Old Believers to pray for a while, which they do as bells ring in the background.

ACT 2: Study in the Summerhouse of Prince Golitsyn (25 minutes)

1: Svet moj bratec Vasenka Prince Golitsyn reads a letter from his mistress the Tsarina Sophia *, but he doesn’t trust her an inch. Meanwhile his servant announces the arrival of a fortuneteller. Who might this be?

6: Sily potajnye It is Marfa of all people! And she gives her prophecy (after a rather good introduction which bogs down during the prophecy itself) *. Golitsyn orders her out and tells his servant to drown her in a local bog (which of course doesn’t happen, spoilers).

11: Vot v cem resen Golitsyn, alone gives us a very catchy tune * which was originally more lyrically presented in a duet for Golitsyn and a German pastor (Shostakovich included it in his version) as he remembers past military victories.

23: Ne veli kazit Much of the rest of the act consists of a argument between Golitsyn and Prince Ivan Khovansky as they accuse each other of treason. This is broken up by an attempt at refereeing by Dosifey (Old Believers heard in the background at one point singing a chorus that returns in the next act) until Marfa returns from her attempted drowning *. Shaklovitsy arrives with a decree from the Tsars accusing the Khovansky family of treason. Rimsky ends the act with the Dawn theme because Mussorgsky never actually finished it and the action just sort of stops at this point.

ACT 3: A street in the Streltsy Quarter of Moscow in front of the Khovansky residence. (36 minutes)

3: Ischodila miadesenka The Old Believers are at it again but they quickly leave Marfa to sing a song about love which has a single tune which will be repeated over and over again for the next ten minutes *.

7: Grech! Tjazkij, neiskupimyi A nasty Old Believer named Susanna (a soprano) arrives and beats up on Marfa for singing her love song * until Dosifey comes to her rescue and Susannah leaves. After much that is frankly ornery, Mussorgsky milks the love theme from that song Marfa sang earlier one last time to effect. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote connecting bars to make it possible to simply cut the entire duet because it is dramatically irrelevant and requires waste-casting of a soprano.

19: Spit streleckoe gnezdo With that over with, the stage is left empty for Shaklovity to give us a God Save Russia! aria which actually turns out to be the best number of the entire act **.

23: Podnimasja, molodcy The rest of the act consists mostly of choral numbers interrupted by ariosos * as the drunken Streltsy come on planning to destroy the city and their women chide them (Rimsky cut the Kuzka gypsy party piece that should be here). The Scribe arrives to tell them that Tsar Peter has ordered his men to persecute the Streltsy. Now even their women worry. Prince Ivan comes on and tells the Streltsy not to resist Tsar Peter (Why?). The act ends with a gloomy a cappella chorus.

ACT 4: (35 minutes)

Scene 1: A room in the Khovansky residence.

1: Vozle recki Women entertain Prince Khovansky rather boringly (or at least he is rather bored with their song *. A servant of Golitsyn arrives to warn Khovansky of an assassination attempt, but he throws caution to the wind and orders for Persian slave girls to dance for him while he eats dinner.

6: The Dance of the Persian Slaves *, okay as far as opera-ballets go, but a bit boring if atmospheric with the melody going to the cor anglais. It is the sort of thing one listens to while bathing with perfume.

16: Plyvet, plyvet lebeduska The girls sing one last song * as Khovansky prepares to go off after Shaklovity gives him a summons by the Royal Council and he gets knifed at the door. And with that the old Russia dies with him.

Scene 2: Red Square, before St. Basils.

19: A mournful intermezzo * as Golitsyn goes into exile. More chorusing

23: Sversiloja resenie sudby We now enter the best section of the opera as Dosifey tells Marfa that the Old Believers are going to have to commit mass suicide **. He suggests that they entice Prince Andrei to join them so he and Marfa can finally be united (somewhere I guess?).

28: A, ty zdes zlodejka! Andrei arrives ** (remember him?) searching for Emma and is informed by Marfa that she has been returned to her fiance in Germany. She also informs him that the Streltsy have all be condemned to death. He doesn’t believe her and promises to have his men burn her to death as a witch (well she is a fortuneteller…) and calls for them on his horn.

31: Gospodi, Bozhe moj! By far the best sequence in the entire opera occurs as the Streltsy come on before Andrei and Marfa carrying their own execution blocks ***. The two leave the scene. The Streltsy wives demand that their men all be executed. The troops of Tsar Peter arrive, the Streltsy are pardoned! The wives are annoyed.

ACT 5: A pine forest near Moscow, a Old Believer chapel. (28 minutes)

0: The first half of the act is dominated by a single string theme * that just continues and continues through a long aria for Dosifey. He eventually leads the Old Believers in a prayer which goes absolutely nowhere. The male and female Believers give their consent to the mass suicide.

14: Podvigilis The Marfa-Andrei duet *. She is totally on board for the suicide, but Andrei seriously has, well, doubts. After a Hallelujah! or at least the best one is going to get out of a bunch of suicidal Russians, the troops are heard in the distance and Dosifey tell them it is time to fry. Now there is a march going on in the timpani as they get ready for the cooking time. Marfa is last, sets fire to the chapel, and goes in.

25: Gospodi slavy The finale *, the troops in the distance, the Old Believers getting turned into London broil. The troops come on, ostensibly to give an amnesty to the sect, but too late. Curtain.


Khovanshchina is not bad, it is simply weird, at least if you are not Russian. Too much of the music feels amateurish (the changes made by Rimsky-Korsakov only amplify this), and too much of the plot is vague beyond comprehension. There is a Wagnerian quality to much of the music (especially the opening scene of act 1, the second scene of act 4, and in the fifth act) although this is more obvious in the Shostakovich orchestration than in the Rimsky. But up against this are some very well orchestrated instrumental pieces (the prelude, the ballet), the Streltsy choruses in the first and fourth acts, and at least three very well projected characters in Prince Ivan Khovansky, Dosifey, and Marfa. The two tenors are disappointing: Golitsyn has less than half and hour to sing concentrated entirely in the second act, Andrei appears only in three scenes, after the first act he disappears for around ninety minutes and only fully develops in the last act. But also in the positive is what the work represents: the Russian Soul. The one common theme is that all of the characters (apart from Prince Andrei who is girl-crazy) want Russia to be its best and most of them lose. The primary atmosphere is one of utter doom: that Russia has lost its religious mores (Old Believers/Dosifey/Marfa), that it is losing its unique identity (Khovansky and Shaklovity), that it needs to modernize (Golitsyn, Tsar Peter). Apart from the Tsar, who never actually appears, everyone loses, and most of them die. There are some meaningless episodes (the Susanna-Marfa duet is utterly pointless) and it is true that Rimsky-Korsakov simplified the very cluttered plot with his changes. He also removed most of the less than politically correct sections (such as when the Streltsy Kuzka goes into a chauvinistic ditty in the third act), as well as most of the sexual and religiously exploitative references (the letter from the mother of Golitsyn and his duet with the scheming German pastor). The finale also shifts the focus from the Old Believers to the New Russia of the reformist Tsar Peter, whereas in the Shostakovich and the Stravinsky endings the focus is entirely on the (ahistorical) mass suicide with its rather Russian Orthodox preoccupation with death and mortality. The former is the stuff of grand opera, the latter that of music drama. Personally, I actually prefer the more upbeat Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration, even if it is faithless to the intentions of Mussorgsky. A beta.

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