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February 29, 2012 5:36 pm
Khovanshchina isn’t easy. Relentlessly sombre, it explores political and spiritual conflicts in the riotous Russia of Peter the soon-to-be-Great. American operagoers do not know much about that epoch, and Mussorgsky’s endless stress on sacred pomp compromises universal uplift.
Problematic, too, is the choice of edition. Incomplete when the composer died in 1881, the opera was prettified by Rimsky-Korsakov. His time-dishonoured tinkering has been superseded, however, by a tougher if not tauter orchestration by Shostakovich. The Met uses it, yet introduces a softer, gentler, little-known finale provided by Stravinsky in 1913.
The production is sometimes perplexing. August Everding’s picturesque staging, first seen in 1985 and last in 1999, has been refreshed by Peter McClintock. It moves hordes across the spare panorama efficiently and focuses the convoluted narrative almost clearly. Ming Cho Lee’s sets fluctuate oddly between stylisation and naturalism. And Benjamin Millepied’s clumsy-contemporary choreography, interpolated for the Dance of the Persian Slaves, suggests an embarrassing anachronism.
Still, the music-making on Monday was vital. In the pit Kirill Petrenko enforced both sweeping passion and introspective sympathy without undermining tension. The chorus, trained by Donald Palumbo, roared and whispered with dauntless virtuosity. The cast, mostly Russian, exerted authentic conviction.
Anatoli Kotscherga exulted in primitive heroism as the hulking Prince Ivan Khovansky, craftily counterbalanced by George Gagnidze as the boyar Shaklovity. Among the princely tenors, Vladimir Galouzine conveyed the hysterics of Golitsyn with admirably brutish force while Misha Didyk made the lighter nastiness of Andrei Khovansky eminently credible. Olga Borodina, the long-suffering Marfa, may not command the plush mezzo-soprano tones that used to be her speciality, but she compensated with poignant dignity and dynamic subtlety. Ildar Abdrazakov imbued the pious platitudes of the martyr Dosifei with much basso lyricism if little magnetism. John Easterlin made a major impression in the minor duties of the wily Scrivener.
Incidental intelligence: when the curtain rose at 7pm, the house was hardly full. It was considerably less than that at 11.30pm when the curtain finally fell.
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