NEW YORK -- Modest Mussorgsky's 'other' opera, 'Khovanshchina,' has returned to the Metropolitan Opera after 35 years in a new version orchestrated by Dmitri Shostakovich that brings it closer to the stature of 'Boris Godunov.'
'Boris' is the most performed of Mussorgsky's half dozen operas, with 'Khovanshchina' running a far second, probably because of a complex political plot that lacks dramatic cohesion.
Mussorgsky died in 1881 without orchestrating 'Khovanshchina,' a task that fell to his friend, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who not only altered the music but gave it a slick theatricality in his own style.
'Khovanshchina' was last performed at the Met in 1950, 10 years before Shostakovich went back to Mussorgsky's original manuscripts to prepare his own edition of the work.
As performed at the Met in Russian Monday, the Shostakovich version is eminently satisfactory, emphasizing the unadorned richness of Mussorgsky's sweeping melodies and the grandeur of his choral music.
This is an opera for male voices, and the Met cast includes some impressive ones. Martti Talvela's fabulous bass and commanding stage presence makes the role of the bearded spiritual leader, Dosifei, a powerful pivot on which the opera turns. This is one of the much-admired Finnish singer's finest roles.
Talvela is matched in stature, both vocal and physical, by another bass, Aage Haugland, in the role of the bald and pompous Prince Khovansky. Haugland sustained the tension in his long, introspective Act II aria masterfully and generally provided Khovansky's character with plausible dimension.
Dosifei and Khovansky represent Old Russia in its struggle against the radical influence of Peter the Great, who looked to Western Europe for ideas that would modernize his barbaric country.
In the opera, the radicals are represented by Prince Golitsin, spiritedly sung by tenor Wieslaw Ochman, and his henchmman, Varsonoviev, portrayed by yet another admirable bass, Andrij Dobriansky.
Another outstanding performance is that of Denes Gulyas, a Hungarian tenor who is having his debut season at the Met, in the role of Andrei Khovansky, the dissolute son of the prince. The women in his life, Emma and Marfa, are sung by Natalia Rom and Helga Dernesch repectively.
This is Dernesch's debut and it is a memorable one. The Viennese mezzo has one of those big, penetrating voices that is thrilling from bottom to top. She makes the eery divination scene, with its somber revelation of Golitsin's fate, one of the highlights of the opera.
Neeme Jarvi, the Estonian-born conductor, is very much in control of his instrumental forces, never allowing the orchestra to overwhelm the singers and supporting them sensitively. David Stivender's chorus, though smaller than might be expected, sings to thrilling effect and gives the production much of its Russian flavor. Less successful are the sets designed by Ming Cho Lee, who has foreshortened the Met's deep stage for no particular reason. St. Basil's square in Moscow and the street outside Khovansky's palace had the rough board look of a warehouse interior and the Westernized drawing room of the Golitsin palace is furnished in the Louis XV style a generation before its time.
John Conklin's 17th century costumes in somber black, grey and garnet add a muted richness, and David Toguri has provided properly exotic choreography for the Persian slave girls at the banquet at Khovansky's palace. This lavish scene contrasts sharply to chillingly realized forest-set self-immolation of Dosifei and his followers following the murder of Khovansky and the banishment of Golitsin.
Although the Met management is opposed to English subtitles, which the neighboring New York City Opera has used with success, 'Khovanshchina' is just the sort of opera that would be enhanced by them.
Unfortunately the plot is too byzantine for opera-goers to absorb from a casual reading of the program synopsis and for most of the audience it remains an unintelligible four-hour show with gorgeous music.