Outstanding Modest Mussorgsky Khovanshchina with Semyon Bychkov at the Proms . Outstanding because Bychkov is brilliant, translating the music itself into drama. Khovanshchina isn't really opera. The libretto is confusing : you need to know what's "not" there to understand what it might be about. It I s anti-historical, anti-narrative, adapting the past to comment on the present. The singers sing parts which aren't characters so much as symbols. Bychkov reveals Khovanshchina as a panorama exploring the Russian soul through music. That glorious orchestration expresses the glory of the idea of Russia, an entity far greater than Tsars, streltskys and whoever might be competing for control.
Significantly, Khovanshchina is very much a work where grand choruses dominate: the people as enduring community, rather than individuals, who come and go. Thus the expansive orchestral prelude with which the opera begins: lush strings, lyrical woodwinds. Though the first scene is set in Red Square in the seventeenth century, the countryside isn't far away. Without those fields and rivers, the people wouldn't prosper, there'd be no point in rebellions or suppressions. The crowd in Red Square boast and threaten. The music here moves back and forth in rhythmic patterns, impressive and dramatic, but leading nowhere. The drama really starts when Emma (Anush Hovhannisyan) enters, pursued by Andrei Khovansky (Christopher Ventris). She's German, part of a large community who'd settled the Baltic for a thousand years. When boors beat up on women all the time, why use a German, not a Slav ? Emma's not a historical figure, but she symbolizes something. Andrei Khovansky and his father Ivan (Ante Jerkunica) fight over Emma, who wants neither of them. Luckily, she is saved by Marfa (Elena Maximova).. Marfa was once Andrei's fiancée.but is now an outsider, having joined the Old Believers. Think on that. Thus the First Act ends with religion, not war, with the tolling of huge, ominous bells, hushed, reverential choruses and the resounding calls of Dosifey (Ain Anger), leader of the Old Believers, whom the Tsar and powers that be would like to destroy.
In the Second and Third Acts, the soloists take the foreground. The constant to and fro in the score evokes the turbulence of the plot. The text fills in some of the background, but essentially the singers are acting out a wider drama of which their roles are only a small part. Intrigues and paranoia: everyone at cross-purposes, grabbing for power. Though heroic trumpets ring out round them, the Strelsky are grubby opportunists, and Golitsin (Vsevolod Grivnov ) princely by title, not by nature. The choral lines swirl, whipped to frenzy by wildly rhythmic, yet angular orchestration. Part folk dance, part military march. Even among the Old Believers, there is dissent : Marfa is denounced by Susanna (Jennifer Rhys-Davies). Thus Dosifey and Marfa represent the moral heart of the drama, the writing for their parts the strongest of all. Among a good cast, Ain Anger and Elena Maximova stand out out. Breathtaking singing, with fervour and committment. Marfa's part is even better developed, with a greater emotional range. Though the Old Believers are paternalistic regressives, Marfa symbolizes Mother Russia, their true soul.
For a while, though, Ivan Khovansky feels secure. In Act Four Mussorgsky writes exotic "Oriental" dances, but a mournful solo woodwind melody suggest the luxuries might come to an end. Although Mussorgsky set out to write "Russian" opera in resistance to Wagner, the mournful melody could suggest (to Wagnerians, at least) the shepherd's flute in Tristan und Isolde. The chorus sings of Khovansky as a "white swan". Perhaps the melody is his swan song.
Intrigues are crushed. We're back with the crowds in Red Square, but now the mood is foreboding, the choirs singing in fearful hush. Golitisin is marched into exile, his followers marched to their deaths. Yet again, Dosifey is the spokesman who describes the action, in tones so sombre that you can imagine what's happening though you see nothing literal. Trumpet fanfares, thundering timpani: marches lead the rebels and to the scaffold. Or rather to immolation. The choral lines stretch, as if fanned by flames and swirling smoke. The brass and percussion explode. The Tsar has triumphed.
So, too, must the Old Believers be annihilated. The Final Act begins in gloom, long string lines suggesting desolation. Dosifey's last sermon seeks solace in God : the orchestral colours around him shrouded, the choruses singing a solemn hymn. The childrens' voices rise upwards, suggesting angels. Though the percussion beats violent staccato, the choral line ascends, as if the Old believers were being lifted upwards by prayer. Beautifully modulated singing, which seems to shimmer brightly against the darkness around it. Although Mafra has saved Andrei, he still loves Emma, and she him. Mafra's love isn't tied to earthly things She and Andrei will die like "two candles in flames" for the glory of God, not alone, but with the community of Old Believers. In the finale, the orchestra erupts, brasses blazing. The choruses sing, Mafra's voice soaring above. But heavy percussion pounds a funeral march, and suddenly - silence.
Bychkov drew from the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing of ferocious richness: you';d think this was a Russian opera orchestra rather than our much-loved familiar London band. Perhaps they were inspired, too, by the exceptionally vivid singing of the choruses, the BBC Singers supplemented by the Slovak Philharmonic Choir, and later the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School Schola Cantorum and the Tiffin Boys Choir. Mussorgsky creates drama through the intensity of writing . By bringing this music so passionately alive, Bychov created drama from sound.