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Khovanshchina in Moscow: the Mariinsky vs the Bolshoi

di Olesya Bobrik
Data di pubblicazione su web 03/06/2024  

Modest Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina (1872-1880) was staged five times between March 13th and March 17th, 2024 at the Bolshoi Theatre. The unfinished opera was performed in Dmitrij Šostakovič’s orchestration (1958). The decorations, choir, orchestra and Bolshoi ballet remained unchanged – unlike the soloists; this gave the audience a unique opportunity to compare the current state of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky troupes. 

The staging of Khovanshchina at the Bolshoi was long-anticipated – one of the main Russian operas was awaited for almost twenty years. The appearance of Khovanshchina on the Historic Stage hit a nerve in the Russia of our day and age. Most of the partakers of the late-17th century uprisings came to a sticky end: in the course of action, Ivan Khovansky, the stately leader of the Streltsy, is slaughtered in his own home; Vasiliy Golitsin, Sophia’s favorite, is sent into exile. The tragedy reaches its peak at the self-immolation of Old Believer monks in the forest. Among them are some of the main characters – Dosifey, the leader of the Old Believers, Marfa, and her beloved, Andrey, a young member of the Khovansky clan. Marfa, a soothsayer and an Old Believer, becomes the centre of light in the opera whose mystical ecstasy combines the spiritual and the sensual. For her, burning alive with the one she loves is the ultimate moment of happiness. 

However, what contributes most to Khovanshchina’s epic scope is the multitude of choruses. The opera offers a genius depth of representation of the Russian people with their terrifying ruthlessness, sorrowful suffering, darkness, rapturous worshiping of their leaders and, ultimately, fervent religiosity and readiness to die for their faith. The ending of the opera – a skete full of believers being devoured by fire – may evoke associations with Wagner. This, however, is far more frightening – it is more realistic and free of conventions.

A scene from the performance 
© Damir Yusupov 

Like many other new names at the Bolshoi, Khovanshchina is not a new production – the decorations and costumes were brought from the Mariinsky theatre. However, the decision of the Bolshoi to stage it – even as a series of five performances – was inspirational, especially as this was Valery Gergiev’s first time conducting them since his appointment as general director. 

The scenography of the unforgettable Khovanshchina directed by Leonid Baratov and designed by Fyodor Fedorovsky, which premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in the distant year of 1950, gave a feeling of déjà vu, recreating the images of Marfa – Irina Arkhipova, Ivan Khovansky - Alexander Vedernikov, and Dosifey – Evgenij Nesterenko… Paradoxically, this time, the legendary production returned to its “historic homeland” from the Mariinsky Theatre, where it has been staged for seventy years (albeit with interruptions). The alternating performances of the Mariinsky and Bolshoi Theatres soloists turned out to be a real intrigue. (Here, the word “intrigue” is no exaggeration – the cast was announced at the last moment, sometimes on the morning before the performance!) Thanks to this alternation, the especially fervent opera fans who were ready to dedicate several evenings to an almost five-hour staging got the opportunity to compare the two troupes. 

The St. Petersburg and Moscow troupes were in a different position from the very beginning. For the Mariinsky artists, Khovanshchina is a familiar and lived-in (if not slightly “stale”) repertory production. Their Bolshoi colleagues, however, had two months to learn the score, let alone get accustomed to the stage space. After just having set the “geography” of the stage and getting comfortable with the decorations, the cast of the Bolshoi only got to truly familiarize themselves with them in the process of performing. Try to picture the movements of the soloists, choir and ballet working with unfamiliar “old” benches, not to mention Dmirty Ulyanov (Ivan Khovansky) entering the stage on a slightly agitated (from the new location) black horse and performing his first monologue, My Children!, in such an unusual position. Although the performance was adrenaline-filled, there were no slip-ups (not in my opinion, anyway!). 

The two performances, staged with the same decorations but with different troupes, contrasted each other in many ways. The Mariinsky’s Khovanshchina is theatrical and at times dramatic. This is illustrated by the soloists’ similar manner of playing out the text: they contrast timbres, intonations, the nature and tempo of the text, exaggerate the articulation of separate words and sounds (especially consonants), shout and laugh to emphasize key phrases, and the ensembles’ lines create an expressive counterpoint.

A scene from the performance
© Valentin Baranovsky

Such treatment of the vocal parts, at times bordering on academic style where singing turns into intoned speech – and sometimes simply declamation and cries – is unusual for the Bolshoi Theatre. The way the Mariinsky performers expressed their theatre’s style differed among them. Shaklovity (Alexey Markov) and the Scrivener (Andrei Zorin) were polar opposites. The way Alexey Markov (probably the best performer in the Mariinsky troupe, perhaps even among all the soloists who have ever sung Shaklovity’s part) performed was astonishing in its consistency, scale and grandeur, as well as his typically Russian ample, dark sound and expressive intonations. Andrei Zorin’s performance was overacting bordering on cavalier behaviour – he constantly veered into shouts, and, most importantly, did so with an (intonationally and rhythmically) approximate rendition of the musical text, going so far as to skip entire phrases. I cannot recall the last time I heard something similar at the Bolshoi. Surprisingly, the soloist sang (if not to say “acted”) the part of the Scrivener in all three Mariinsky performances – March 13th, 15th and 17th. 

Vladimir Vaneyev (Ivan Khovansky) and Stanislav Trofimov (Dosifey), two Mariinsky basses, proved to be reliable points of support for their troupe. All the major parts they performed had a full and natural sound. (I must note that Stanislav Trofimov and Vladislav Sulimsky – who sang the part of Shaklovity at the March 16 performance – appear on the stage of the Bolshoi so often one could nominally call them “touring performers”.) Sergei Skorokhodov (Andrey Khovansky) also did justice to the ensemble’s level, though the theatrical aspect of his singing felt a little overdone. Yulia Matochkina, who sang the lead female part, is a natural central mezzo whose strong sides include a noble matte timbre, smooth registers and finely nuanced pronunciation. However, the descent into the contralto tones of the lower octave, typical of Marfa’s part, took the soloist some effort. The performance of old-timer Yevgeny Akimov (Vasiliy Golitsin) left me with mixed feelings. The singer’s acting skills spoke in favour of him: his speech was expressive and diverse, sometimes to the point of anxious quivering. The singer’s voice was powerful and room-filling, albeit marked by an exaggerated vibrato. 

The Bolshoi’s performance of Khovanshchina had a more academic sound. The theatricalization of the opera (that can be ascribed to the new creative director’s influence), which the soloists of the Bolshoi are unaccustomed to, was present here as well, but within reason and without disrupting the integrity and precision of the score. Those who performed the “secondary” parts did so combining vivacity and a high-quality, expressive interpretation of the musical text – these performers were, namely, Ivan Davydov (Kuzka), Anna Shapovalova (Emma), Alexander Polkovnikov (the Pastor), Igor Yanulaitis (the Scrivener) – previously unknown to me and boasting a rich voice worthy of the Historic Stage, as well as strong diverse acting (featuring both guile and strain), turned out to be a real revelation.

In comparison to the Mariinsky, the Bolshoi’s soloists gave a more consistent impression in terms of quality. Their main character and center of attraction was Marfa, performed by Ksenia Dudnikova, who holds a nowadays uncommon mezzo soprano with a rich contralto register. Her saturated overtones, the smoothness and richness of her voice throughout the entire range and especially her mezza voce, which preserves her rounded, deep timbre, are truly impressive. Ksenia Dudnikova’s Marfa is unruffled, with dignified and composed gestures, and despite an internal fullness, there are no signs of theatricalization in her. The public compared her to Olga Borodina and Irina Arkhipova. Such comparisons are compelling, but they do not feel like an exaggeration. 

The charismatic Dmitry Ulyanov (Ivan Khovansky) impressed me with his strong voice and beautiful timbre. In comparison to the burly Khovansky portrayed by Vladimir Vaneyev, appearing as if he had just emerged from a dark chamber and muttering God help us! through clenched teeth, Ulyanov’s character is less canonical. His Khovansky is the leader of the Strelsty, a man at the peak of his prime and fame, as well as a tyrant – though at heart, he is a boy and a good-natured person. The crowds’ fascination with him – as well as the viewers’ attention – is strong and natural. One could hardly believe all the bloody deeds carried out under his leadership.

A scene from the performance
© Natasha Razina

Konstantin Artemiev’s portrayal of Khovansky’s son, Andrey, was also unusual. Artemiev, gifted with a rich lyric voice with prospects of spinto, is a lot more refined and polite in his conversations with women than the role of a 17-century heedless representative of the jeunesse dorée would assume. Unsurprisingly, he gave his best performance at the end of the opera – thanks to his lyric voice, full of dark overtones, the song Where Are You, My Freedom? was unforgettable. 

Elchin Azizov and Vladislav Sulimsky’s performances of Shaklovity were close to the gold standard. Both of them were able to create a strong, persuasive and whole – both in terms of acting and singing – image of an ambivalent, cynical murderer who is also a hero who suffers in the name of Russia’s fate. 

Vladimir Popov’s Dosifey is unusual compared to the interpretations created at the Bolshoi in the 20th century by Feodor Chaliapin, Mark Reizen, Alexander Pirogov, Ivan Petrov (Krauze), Alexander Vedernikov, Evgenij Nesterenko, Vladimir Matorin… Joining their ranks is not easy. But the singer, who possesses a noble, level basso cantante, is convincing as Dosifey, who grieves together with his “children in spirit”. 

The Bolshoi ballet ensemble’s performance of the “Dance of the Persian Slaves” with Elena García Benítez as the soloist was impressively flexible and wonderful. The entire Bolshoi troupe’s preparation for Khovanshchina was full of “fear and trembling”. The quality of the choir’s sound made the results evident – it was different and always deeply felt-through. The archaic text of Khovanshchina’s libretto was so well-articulated one could comprehend it by ear – usually, even specialists must consult the written text. Gergiev succeeded in creating a vast scale of contrasts, almost “cinematic” interventions, and a concentration and discharge of energy which gave the production a distinct shape. (This was drawn from Šostakovič’s orchestration, which emphasized the dark tones of the orchestra.) The conductor’s attentiveness to the soloists was praiseworthy: the orchestra never seemed to overpower the singer, nor did the latter appear to be uncomfortable with the chosen tempo. The conductor gave the soloists freedom of action, putting his trust in the performers and gently going along with them. 

Nevertheless, it has to be said that the orchestra and choir of the Bolshoi Theatre haven’t had enough time to become accustomed to Gergiev’s hand. The reason appears to be obvious: the number of rehearsals was most likely not enough for a work of Khovanshchina’s scale. In the choir, there were few instances of disarray. The orchestra, however, had mishaps more or less consistently, from minor ones to significant blunders that no one familiar with Khovanshchina could leave unnoticed. Minor slip-ups included a texture that was at times suspiciously sparse and lacked part of the voices, as well as more or less traditional (albeit unfortunate for a conductor of Gergiev’s level) instances of unsynchronized beginnings, which were especially noticeable in the tutti parts and among the brass section.

A scene from the performance
© Valentin Baranovsky

On March 16th, an unplanned “event” took place at the end of the first act. An “unauthorized” fanfare broke out from behind the stage, emitting a triad in B-flat major. The abruptness of the incident caused a pause to linger in the Bolshoi. Andrey Khovansky (Konstantin Artemiev) saved the situation by crying out with despair (and in this case, with hope), My father is coming!, after which everything went back to normal. 

In any case, this series of Khovanshchina stagings was spectacular and unforgettable. Hearing Dawn on the Moscow River conducted by Gerviev, where you could almost see the aerial currents of the violas and violins, the touching “morning roosters” of the oboe and cor anglais and the frightening, heavy, booming “bell” (tutti in Šostakovič’s instrumentation!) was worth making it (or rather, making it through!) to all five performances in a row. 

How was Khovanshchina chosen to be performed on the Historic Stage in our day and age? One could answer with Fëdor Tjutčev’s words, «Russia cannot be known by the mind». Could it be that our subconscious desire to sublimate the pain and sorrow of the past few years manifested itself in this choice? Either way, Khovanshchina was what Valery Gergiev, general director of the Bolshoi and conductor, chose – and we are grateful to him for this.

Opera in cinque atti

cast cast & credits
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A moment from the performance seen last March (2024) at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow
© Damir Yusupov

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