Tune in on Saturday, March 17 at 11 a.m., when the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts Khovanshchina by Modest Mussorgsky, best known in the opera world for his earlier Boris Godunov, often considered the greatest of Russian operas.
Like Boris, Khovanshchina has music which is deeply rooted in Russian folk song and the rhythms of the Russian language. Again like Boris, its story comes from a period of Russian history marked by struggles of competing factions, an autocratic ruler, and the pull between Russia and the West.
For a number of reasons, it has never been as familiar as Boris. For one thing, Mussorgsky died before completing it. Much of the opera was finished at that point but considering the massive history of revising that went into Boris, who knows what the final version might have been like? (Any staging must rely on editorial work by later musicians--in the case of the Met, Dmitri Shostakovich.)
There's also the question of the plot, which deals with an episode in Russian history which will not be familiar to most in the West. In very simplified terms: we see various characters and groups, all of whom are in opposition — unsuccessfully, as we will learn — to Tsar Peter the Great.
We might expect that Peter would appear as a principal character of the opera — but the rules of the time prohibited putting a member of the ruling dynasty on stage, or indeed mentioning his name. At first, this makes for a confusing plot, though once this basic conflict is understood, many of the episodes of the opera fall into place more clearly.
One of the characters opposing Peter is the nobleman Khovansky. He gives the opera its name, which translates approximately as "the Khovansky affair." But the group that many listeners will remember most vividly are the "Old Believers" — that part of the Russian people who are opposed to Peter's religious reforms. In the opera's finale, they accept death rather than change their beliefs.
Saturday's cast includes, among others, the star mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina as Marfa, who prophesies the somber events of the future in one of the score's most famous moments. Kirill Petrenko conducts.