Khovanshchina, Mussorgsky’s political opera also dubbed The Khovansky Affair is a work not often heard outside of its motherland, and at first glance it is rather prohibitive. There is the length (four and a half hours curtain to curtain, including two intervals), the unpronounceable title (I would like to buy a vowel please, Pat) and a plot so complicated that even literature lovers suffer horrifying flashbacks of desperately trying to keep straight endless Tolstoy characters while writing an exam. That being said, it also is full of sweepingly beautiful line, great melody and innovative instrumentation – in this production the scoring provided by Shostakovich, Mussorgsky having left behind only an incomplete piano score.

Ferruccio Furlanetto (Ivan Khovansky) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Ferruccio Furlanetto (Ivan Khovansky)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper

The plot turns loosely around a period of political unrest in Russia when three factions are vying for control of the country. Each leader believes himself the true leader of the land and guardian of its soul. Peter the Great is sweeping Russia with his westernizing reforms, and Prince Ivan Khovansky (Ferruccio Furlanetto) and his band of retired soldiers, the Streltsy, as well as Dosifey (Ain Anger) and his band of “old believers/schismatics” (Russian Orthodox Christians who defy Tsar Peter as heretical) including Marfa (Elena Maximova) mount resistance. Mix in a father-son dispute between Khovansky and his son, Andrei (Christopher Ventris), a love triangle between Marfa, Andrei and a foreigner named Emma (Caroline Wenborne), a gaggle of scolding soldiers’ wives and a Persian harem and you get the colorful idea. Things do not end well. The scheming Shaklovity (Andrzej Dobber) aligns himself with Tsar Peter and has Khovansky murdered while Dosifey leads his followers to commit mass suicide by fire.

Musically, the Staatsopernorchester were in excellent hands under maestro Semyon Bychkov and played faultlessly, cleanly and with a warm richness that was an absolute treat. Generous praise goes as well to the massive choir, some 150 strong, and to choir director Thomas Lang for brilliant preparation and successful execution; not ever an easy task with a group this size.

Khovanshchina also offers ample opportunity for massive, haunting and grandiose vocal display, beautifully realized by a remarkable cast led by Ain Anger (Dosifey), Elena Maximova (Marfa) and Ferruccio Furlanetto (Ivan Khovansky). All three are incredibly musical and have voices with exceptional strength, beauty of timbre and richness to such a degree that it is almost unfair to discuss anyone else on stage with them in the same paragraph. With few exceptions, there was musicality and vocal prowess on display to beat the band. Even if this were a completely unstaged production it would, musically, be an evening well-spent.

Elena Maximova (Marfa) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Elena Maximova (Marfa)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper

And so it is disappointing to report that despite a feast of great music, performances and drama, this will not be a memorable production due to minimal and confusing stage direction by Lev Dodin and the beautiful but monotonous set design from Alexander Borovskiy. From curtain rise to fall a large, moveable, metallic framework seemingly built out of beams and crosses fills the stage. The structure is ideal to partition the separate groups and hold such a large cast, and also lends itself initially to some very effective tableaux, but over the course of the evening it becomes tiresome in its endless up and down and up again – like being stuck for hours on an industrial freight elevator. The stage movement consists primarily of groups dressing and undressing and the occasional pounding of fists in the air. Protagonists occasionally sit or kneel, but generally it is a 'park-and-bark' production with little to no movement. The one notable exception is the musically thrilling dance scene when Khovansky calls for his Persian harem. The ladies appear covered from head to foot in black material, perform an awkward step-touch-step routine, and then expose their underpants numerous times with the minimum amount of eroticism possible. The scene ends with them in underwear, “Nieder mit Chowanski” (Down with Khovansky) spelled across their collective chests and brandishing knives. Something more incongruous with the exciting, exotically climaxing music to which they are meant to dance is difficult to imagine.

© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper

My heart goes out to the entire musical team of Khovanshchina. Their gargantuan efforts and a lion’s share of spectacular singing, playing and conducting cannot save this production from being an evening which cannot be called overwhelmingly successful. While Regietheater often fails by being too much, less is not always more and is sometimes really just not nearly enough. The audience needed direction that clarified the plot, brought out the many-layered themes of power, religion and decay, and supported Mussorgsky’s rich musical palate instead of being left at the end of the night wondering what all that beautiful singing and repeated undressing was about.