With productions staged in Paris, Vienna and Antwerp in recent seasons and Amsterdam now, Khovanshchina may no longer qualify as a rarity outside of Russia. It remains a daunting work, both for the public and an artistic team, by its sheer length, its myriad of quickly-drawn characters and its fragmented political plot. Christof Loy’s uncluttered staging for Dutch National Opera has the advantage of clarifying this plot. It also leaves the viewer much space to concentrate on Mussorgsky’s gutsy music (performed here in Shostakovich’s orchestration and ending). This is a good thing, as conductor Ingo Metzmacher leads the chorus of DNO, a fine cast of mostly Slavic soloists and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, in a performance which is engrossing.

Based on historical events that stretched over three decades, Khovanshchina  (which translates roughly as “The Khovansky Affair”) recounts the clash between progressive and reactionary factions in Russia, at the end of the 17th century. On one side, Vasily Golitsyn and Fyodor Shaklovity represent the reformist camp of young Tsar Peter and his half-sister and regent Sofia Alekseyevna, that is pushing to westernize Russia. On the other side, two very different forces resist those changes: the Streltsy  and the Old Believers. The latter are a schismatic movement of the Russian Orthodox Church which refused the reforms introduced in 1666 by Patriarch Nikon to realign Russian liturgy with the Greek orthodoxy. Their leader in the opera is Dosifey, and the fortune teller Marfa is one of them.

The Streltsy (sometimes translated as Musqueteers, as they carry firearms) are a rowdy militia of elite guards, mainly issued from the old Russian gentry, but, by the end of the 17th century, mostly decommissioned and past their prime. They are led by the boyar Ivan Khovansky who, after having supported the regency of Sofia, is rumoured to be rebelling, assumedly to put his own son Andrey on the throne. Khovansky is eventually assassinated by Shaklovity. Golitsyn is disgraced and exiled for being associated with him. The Streltsy are rounded up and arrested. As they are led to their execution, a herald announces the Tsar’s pardon. The Old Believers fate is not as lucky: realizing the rebellion is crushed, they gather in a secluded monastery in the forest and Dosifey leads Marfa, Khovansky’s son Andrey and all the Old Believers onto a pyre in a mass suicide.

Christof Loy’s staging does not totally shy away from the historical origins of the plot. During the magnificent prelude, the curtain opens on a tableau vivant reproducing “The morning of the Streltsy’s execution”, a painting by Vasily Surikov, a contemporary of Mussorgsky. Except for the very end, this first tableau is the only visually spectacular moment of the performance. Quickly, characters shed their historical costumes for modern outfits (mainly business suits for men and nouveau-riche party dresses for women) and start enacting their roles in a timeless political drama. The sets by Johannes Leiacker are often minimalist to the extreme – the whole of Act II is played in front of a plain white background, with a chair and a table as only props – but I found the lack of visual stimuli pushes one to really concentrate on the movements of characters and the chorus on stage, therefore helping clarifying the plot as it progresses.

With not one character to redeem the other, this is an utterly pessimistic work. One could be tempted to go from dark to darker. Not so maestro Ingo Metzmacher who led the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in an inspired performance, drawing from a subtle palette of colours. Khovanshchina contains some of the most haunting pages of choral music in Russian opera and the chorus of the Dutch National Opera gave a sterling performance.

The production boasts a strong cast, down to the smallest roles. Tenor Andrei Popov might not have the most pleasant of timbres but wins with characterization as the scribe. The secondary roles of Emma and Suzanna are luxuriously cast with Svetlana Ignatovich and Olga Savova. Dmitry Ivashchenko (Ivan Khovansky) was announced ill at the beginning of the evening, but went on with the performance (his character dressed in a thick fur coat which cannot be comfortable with a fever) and impressed with his noble tone, leaving us wondering what he will be capable of when he recovers. Tenor Maxim Aksenov had a rawness that fitted Andrei Khovansky’s lust-fuelled character.

Gábor Bretz’s inky bass, as the threatening Shaklovity, made marvel of the aria "The Streltsy nest sleeps". I found Orlin Anastassov somewhat lacking gravitas to really convince as the charismatic Old Believers leader Dosifey, but his deep dark sound is undoubtedly attractive. Kurt Streit gave an intense performance as the troubled Golitsyn. Anita Rachvelishvili allied both a riveting stage presence and exquisite singing, displaying a wide array of colours and superb control of dynamics, and brought the house down with her unforgettable portrayal of Marfa.