- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2002

The Kirov Opera's staging of Modest Mussorgsky's gigantic opera "Khovanshchina" at the Kennedy Center is nothing less than spectacular, but even if the staging had been mediocre, the company's fabulous singers would have rescued it.
"Khovanshchina," which opened Wednesday and will repeat tonight, weighs in at close to 4 hours, including three intermissions.
"Khovanshchina," which translates roughly as "the Khovansky plot," is set in 1682 during the early part of Czar Peter's rule.
The young czar who never appears onstage is opening a window on Europe and establishing a more central government. This, in turn, diminishes the power of the Russian aristocracy or boyars some of whom, led by Ivan Khovansky, are plotting to take over the throne and turn back the clock.
In this, they are aided by the fundamentalist "Old Believers," a group of religious zealots with similar ideas. The opera as is the case with Russian history is murkily plotted. Everything ends quite badly for nearly everyone, with the plotters assassinated or exiled and with the Old Believers committing mass suicide in the fiery immolation scene that concludes the work.
The opera's libretto, provided by the composer, seems to acknowledge that the Old Believers possess the true spirit of Mother Russia, but in the work's conflicted ending, it is still modernity that wins.
As grand and gloomy as its more famous operatic sibling, "Boris Godunov," "Khovanshchina" shares with that work Mussorgsky's conviction that Russia's long-suffering people are really the heroes of history. While armies, religious fanatics and the aristocracy systematically eliminate one another in petty vendettas and slaughter countless peasants and serfs for good measure the people nonetheless endure.
As with many of Mussorgsky's works, "Khovanshchina" remained unfinished at his death. The composer was engaged in a lifelong contest pitting music against the bottle, and the bottle eventually won. As a result, the dissolute composer's brilliant if uneven musical legacy was left a mess.
Much of the Mussorgsky that we hear today was either completed or orchestrated by others, with predictably uneven results. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, his chief champion, popularized these works by adding his patented splashes of bright Oriental colors, but surviving Mussorgsky orchestrations show that the composer preferred to paint his music in much darker hues. His colorations are spare, with occasional eruptions of church bells and gongs, far different from Rimsky's versions.
"Khovanshchina" was originally popularized in a Rimsky version, but later on, Igor Stravinsky and Dmitri Shostakovich put their hands in, as well.
The Kirov's new performing version of Mussorgsky's score was recently reorchestrated by Paul Lamm, who attempts, with great success, to rescue the composer's gritty, stark concept from Rimsky's embellishments. Mr. Lamm's version emphasizes the lower strings a help in underpinning the deep voices of the largely male cast and adds classic Mussorgsky touches such as blaring brass choirs and massive strokes of the gong. The only oddities in Mr. Lamm's orchestral texture are his occasional use of the celesta which somehow seems out of place and his brief scoring of a "tongued" trumpet at a comic moment, a peculiar sound probably borrowed from Richard Strauss' "Don Quixote," a work Mussorgsky would not have known.
Even if the Kirov is using simple drop sets, they are wonderful drop sets, augmented with numerous small touches such as plenty of real candles in the foreground and shimmering rivers in the background. The costuming is colorful and lavish, the huge cast well directed, and the musical concept vigorous and masculine, a notable characteristic of Russian opera and one that is highlighted here by the steady hand of conductor Valery Gergiev.
One of the glories of Russian opera is the huge number roles for barrel-chested Slavic singers in the lower registers, and there are plenty of them in this production. As Ivan Khovansky, bass Vladimir Ognovenko is authoritative and menacing. His commands thunder forth with near-perfect diction.
As his religious counterpart, the Old Believer priest Dosifei, bass Mikhail Kit comes across with equal authority, although his character is tempered by his devotion to God. As the scheming princes Shaklovity and Golitsyn, baritone Sergey Murzaev and low tenor Alexy Steblyanko add their substantial voices to this all-male mix. The harmonies in the ensembles and the dramatic solos of each singer add an imposing weight to the entire production.
This work has only two major female roles. Soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, in her brief appearance as the terrified Emma, proves as gifted as she was in Tuesday's "Iolanta," but director Leonid Baratov makes this scene a little more shrill and histrionic than it needs to be.
On the other hand, mezzo-soprano Marianna Tarasova is a stunner as Marfa, the seer and ex-paramour of Prince Andrey. Really more a contralto, the singer can plumb the deepest notes in the female register without any sign of strain. Color, shading, articulation, enunciation her darkly honeyed voice is nothing short of sensational. Tenor Victor Lutsyuk as the thoroughly rotten Prince, her onetime suitor, wisely chooses not to upstage her scenes and is fittingly led by her to their mutual end in the burning pyre of the Old Believers.
Festivities in the Kirov Festival this week at the Kennedy Center began Tuesday with the Kirov's ballet, opera and orchestra presenting the "Tribute to Tchaikovsky." Works ranged from the great composer's operas to his beloved "Serenade" for strings, which was danced by the ballet corps.
Particularly touching was the opening excerpt from the composer's infrequently staged "Iolanta." As Iolanta, lovely soprano Miss Pavlovskaya was winsome yet vulnerable. Her silken notes wrapped themselves around her character like a colorful ribbon. Tenor Oleg Balashov, as a new suitor who discovers that Iolanta is blind, sang a sad and searing duet with her in an attempt to resolve his inner anguish.
The ballets and most of the set pieces were superbly performed, particularly the closing epic excerpt from the opera "Mazeppa." A notable glitch, however, occurred in the a cappella chorus in a scene from "Pique Dame," in which the singers completely lost their pitch. While the night's costuming was lovely, the makeshift sets seemed hastily put together with materials purchased at a Kmart Blue Light Special.
The Kirov's appearances at the Kennedy Center conclude tonight with a final performance of "Khovanshchina" and tomorrow with performances of Verdi's "Macbeth." The first of the Italian composer's acknowledged later masterpieces, "Macbeth" is based on William Shakespeare's play. This is an excellent chance for Washington-area audiences to sample operas they don't often get to hear.

*** 1/2
WHAT: Kirov Opera
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW
WHEN: "Khovanshchina," 6 tonight; "Macbeth," 1 and 7 p.m. tomorrow
TICKETS: $65 to $225
PHONE: 202/467-4600

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