Eloquently telling Russia's history

Review: The Kirov Opera finds a rich and expressive home in Mussorgsky's `Khovanschina.'

February 22, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The words "bleak" and "Russian history" tend to go together; "confusing" often gets added as well. When set to music, however, bleak, confusing Russian history can engage the senses in a mighty way.

That's certainly the case with Khovanschina, Modest Mussorgsky's epic work about the bloody shift in politics and religion that prefaced Peter the Great's rise to power. It's hard to know who, if anyone, to root for as the work makes its way toward a gruesome version of Gotterdammerung. Ultimately, lines sung by a chorus of Muscovites in the first scene linger in the air after the final chord sounds: "Oh, Mother Russia, there is no peace for you; the oppressor is not the evil alien, but your own people."

Khovanschina exerted its unusual power in a ripe production by the Kirov Opera on Wednesday at the Kennedy Center. The performance might have seemed nearly as long as a Russian winter (actually, only four-and a-half hours, with intermissions), but it had a steady flow and a consistent intensity of expression.

Mussorgsky died before he completed the opera, so it's impossible to know for sure what he intended for orchestration and, in a few places, plot. But Khovanschina has been fortunate in attracting great musical minds to help put the finishing touches on it over the years. The way Valery Gergiev conducted, using an edition of the score credited to Pavel Lamm, it was impossible not to believe that the authentic spirit of the composer was in the house.

This was partly because of how Gergiev emphasized the darkest tone colors, the most bracing chords in the work - colors and chords that practically scream Mussorgsky. But the conductor hardly slighted the subtler side; there were many exquisite, lyrical moments that helped provide an emotional link to figures on the well-populated stage.

Fyodor Fedorovsky's old-fashioned sets, revised by Vicheslav Okunev, effectively evoked turn-of-the-18th-century Moscow. Director Leonid Baratov's approach was similarly dated at times (as when the chorus women lined up in a neat row to serenade Prince Khovansky in Act 3), but there were many memorable stage pictures along the way.

The last scene, in particular, had quite a theatrical, as well as musical, impact. Here, the beleaguered Old Believers - a religious faction doomed by Peter the Great's new order - gathered solemnly in the woods to commit self-immolation.

(This historically based event is but one of the rather chilling things that gives Khovanschina a surprisingly timeless quality. More than 20,000 followers of the faith are said to have gone up in flames during the 1670s and '80s; in our day, we've seen the Jim Jones and Hale Bopp mass suicides. And there are any number of current equivalents to the religious persecutions and political in-fighting that drive the opera.)

As Marfa, an Old Believer who provides a moral compass for the plot, mezzo Marianna Tarasova offered a burgundy-colored voice and passionate phrasing. Vladimir Ognovenko used his ripe bass vividly as the power-drunk, but insecure, Khovansky.

Mikhail Kit's portrayal of Dosifei, spiritual leader of the Old Believers, had commanding vocal and physical presence. Ditto for Sergey Murzaev's performance as the scheming Shaklovity. Konstantin Pluzhnikov, stuck with a very silly fake nose, didn't just provide the intended comic relief as the Scrivener, he fleshed out the character with terrifically nuanced singing.

The chorus has much to do in this opera and it encountered untidy patches, when voices didn't blend cleanly or coordination slipped. But the sound was still rich and wonderfully expressive.

The Kirov Orchestra, a star in its own right, gave Gergiev all the power and vibrancy he sought as he helped to uncover the suffering Russian soul of Khovanschina.

Kirov Opera

What: Presents Mussorgsky's Khovanschina

Where: Kennedy Center, 2600 Virginia Ave. N.W., Washington

When: 6 p.m. tomorrow

Admission: $65 to $225

Call: 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324

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