In February 2002 the Kirov* brought two operas to Washington’s Kennedy Center: Musorgsky’s great opera Khovanshchina and Verdi’s Macbeth.
The unexpected is always welcome in opera. The underlying qual ity desired in every performance is surprise coupled with elements of the unknown. Perhaps it comes in a particular scene, a singer’s charac terization, or in a small vocal detail that produces an unexpected tone. For me, this moment arrived in the second half of Act Three of Musorgsky’s Khovanshchina as the Streltsy chorus representing the old guard of Russian soldiers, pours its heart out with a multitude of emo tions. The roaring drunkenness of the Streltsy, who are at the same time being berated by their womenfolk for their behavior; their suspicion of outsiders; and their all-consuming fear of being defeated by Tsar Peter’s forces culminate in their yielding to the wishes of their leader, Prince Ivan Khovansky, that they return to their homes, since Peter’s troops may be too strong an adversary for them to overcome.
Opera choruses run the gamut of uses for composers: some like choral asides to accompany the main action as in Lucia’s Mad Scene in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, while others prefer to have their chorus introduce the opera sometimes with pithy comments, or just to create a somber mood that will prevail for the rest of the opera as in Vin cenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. In Khovanshchina, Mus orgsky deftly designed his chorus to play one of the major roles along side other main characters such as Marfa, one of the Old Believers, or Dosifei, their leader. The composer goes one step beyond the decora tive and the contemplative to create a chorus that is molded into a col lective character where many sing as one and often take the lead in mov ing the story ahead. It is here that Mussorgsky’s musical genius soars above that of many others.
In the scene mentioned above, the Streltsy march in singing in a hearty and raucous stupor, taunting their wives for challenging their persistent carousing. Here, the male chorus expresses a boastful vocal audacity, taking a “might is right” stance. The women, not fearing their overbearing husbands, assert their displeasure in rich womanly tones, fighting out the battle of the sexes made ever so clear in Musorgsky’s increasingly visceral counterpoint.
No sooner has this tumult taken place, that Kuzka, a Strelets muskateer, enters and tells the mob, all the while, accompanying him self on the balalaika, that gossip along with their constant harping turns everything upside down, topples the mighty and affects men and women alike – a sentiment of equality that the men distrust.
In a musical mood that swings from vocal bantering to reflective trepidation, the Scribe rushes in and breathlessly relates to the crown that Tsar Peter’s soldiers are quickly approaching the Streltsy’s quarters. As he tells his story in quick, pulsating rhythms underscored by the or chestra’s deepening and forbidding tones, the Streltsy come to realize that their fate is sealed and make a final appeal to their leader, prince Khovansky, to save them. To their surprise and horror, he tells them they cannot fight the Tsar’s powerful forces and to go home and wait for the inevitable.
It is at this moment that Musorgsky’s innate theatrical sense takes hold and reaches a stirring climax. He allows the Streltsy to chant the same prayer for salvation as do the Old Believers, disregarding any no tion that God would prefer one group’s suffering over another.
In his notes for the Valery Gergiev 1991 recording of Khovan shchina, Rober Layton says “…a new musical element is to be found in the choruses of the Old Believers for which Mousorgsky drew on the musical language of the Russian Orthodox Church … he encapsu lates the spirit of the Orthodox Church with as much power as he en shrines the very soul of the Russiasn language…” Here Layton miss es a crucial point: Musorgsky gives the Streltsy the same powerful refrains as the Old Believers, but intensifies the scene’s ending by changing the boastful Streltsy into the supplicating Streltsy, creating in the last few moments a chorus of heavenly tones that seem to float out of the theater and right into the incense-laden recesses of an Orthodox church where the priests can be heard chanting the same glorious mu sic. What a remarkable accomplishment it is to have such beautiful musical phrases mesh so naturally with a strong, traditional belief and then to end with a dash of democracy by putting the Streltsy, the Old Believers and the clergy on an equal musical plane. Khovanshchina is often called a national musical drama and even Musorgsky referred to it as “folk drama,” leaving no doubt that this work makes the Russian people the star.
* Whereas the famed Petersburg theater is now again called the Mariin sky, the company itself is still known as the Kirov.