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.