Learning History's Lessons: Mussorgsky's 'Khovanshchina'

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During the Soviet era, Russian composers faced a vexing problem in trying to practice their art, and also make a living, without running afoul of government cultural authorities. To solve it they sometimes looked to the movies, where directors often resolved similar difficulties by turning to a subject long favored by the country's opera composers: Russian history.

Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev are two examples. Shostakovich was able to stay busy, without getting in trouble, by scoring films featuring stories of the Bolshevik revolution. Other composers and filmmakers looked further back. Prokofiev wrote fine scores, still enjoyed by concert audiences today, for the films Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Nevsky, which depict events from as early as the 1200s.

Thus history and it's lessons were fertile ground for film directors and composers in Soviet Russia, and that's hardly surprising. When it came to musical depictions of Russian history, those artists had a long tradition to draw from -- in annals of Russian opera.

Tchaikovsky wrote historical operas, as did Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin, Mikhail Glinka -- and Modest Mussorgsky. In fact, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, an opera based on the life of a Russian ruler from the turn of the 17th-century, is among the most popular Russian dramas of any kind. Mussorgsky's Boris is hardly a triumphant opera. It's the dark and tragic portrayal of a Russian leader from not long after Ivan the Terrible. If Shostakovich or Prokofiev had tried something similar during the Soviet years, it might not have gone over so well.

But when the opera premiered, in 1874, the story wasn't a problem, and it was such a great success that Mussorgsky quickly followed it with another drama in a similar vein. That next opera was Khovanshchina, and the history it portrays may be even darker and more troublesome than the story of Boris Godunov.

Khovanshchina deals with the period of Russian History when Tsar Peter the Great came to power, in the late 1600s. Telling that complex story was a tall order, especially because Russian officials prohibited the depiction of the ruling family on stage. And, perhaps unwisely, Mussorgsky took on the double challenge of writing the opera's libretto, as well as its music. He never managed it, leaving the opera not quite finished, and completely unorchestrated, when he died in 1881.

Fortunately, the powerful score Mussorgsky left behind has since been filled out and orchestrated in two different versions, one by Rimsky-Korskov, made shortly after Mussorgsky's death, and another put together by Shostakovich in 1958. On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us the Shostakovich orchestration of Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina from the Vienna State Opera. The stars include bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova and tenor Christopher Ventris, in a performance led by conductor Semyon Bychkov.