Khovanshchina - "The Khovansky Affair" is Mussorgsky's second full opera, though like several of his other operatic projects, it was never entirely completed. Nonetheless, it exists in a version that is far more complete than any of his other projected and semi-complete operas. Khovanshchina was never orchestrated by Mussorgsky and its closing scene was left incomplete at his death, its complete score existing only in a version for piano.
This version of Khovanshchina is a live performance under the baton of Claudio Abbado, arguably one of the greatest of Mussorgsky's contemporary interpreters (his Boris Godunov is also very good). Occasionally the sound quality does not quite measure up to a studio recording, but overall it is very good. The singing is almost uniformly strong, but three voices stand out above the rest: as Old Believer Dosifey, Paata Burchuldaze, a Georgian bass whose deep voice projects an unmatched power that one has to hear to believe, as Shaklovity, Ukrainian bass-baritone Anatoly Kutcherga, who also performs the lead role in Abbado's Boris Godunov, and Slovenian soprano Marjana Lipovsek who plays Marfa.
Khovanshchina is not as unified a work as Boris Godunov and suffers from a sprawling plot and libretto. But the music is for the most part every bit as gripping as that of Boris Godunov and features some of Mussorgsky's most memorable moments, a few of which are known in concert performance versions, including the opening prelude and Golitsyn's journey.
The final immolation scene in Khovanshchina in which the Orthodox "Old Believers" burn themselves rather than adapt to the reforms of Peter the Great (though censorship forbade direct reference to any Romanov monarch) was completed by Shostakovich but also by Stravinsky, which version is used in this recording. It is based on Mussorgsky's sketches and is powerfully effective. There are two standard versions of this final scene: one completed by Shostakovich and one completed by Stravinsky. This performance features the end created by Stravinsky and it is very satisfying and cathartic (see my two listmania lists on cathartic operatic closing scenes, which includes both Khovanshchina and Boris Godunov, whose closing scene is of course a masterpiece of operatic pathos).
To dispel some of the confusion usually associated with Mussorgsky's operatic works and to place Khovanshchina within its appropriate context in Mussorgsky's brilliant but all-too-brief creative life, here is a list of his operatic projects, in rough chronological order:
1.) Salammbo, based on the work by Flaubert. Salammbo was never completed but features some beautiful music and a few of its arias were recycled to become some of Boris Godunov's finest moments. It is generally thought to be the most lyrical and also most conventional of Mussorgsky's operatic projects. To my knowledge, there is only one recording of Salammbo, which was arranged into six `scenes' and performed in Italy in the early 1980s. It is on the Fonit Cetra label and available from Amazon.co.uk
2.) The Marriage (sometimes translated as "The Wedding"), after the work by Nicolai Gogol, the Russian author who recently experienced brief public exposure with the film adaptation of The Namesake. The Marriage is in essence an experiment in the theories of sung speech that Mussorgsky was at this time developing, ideas that are akin to those developed more than half a century later by Leos Janacek. It almost entirely lacks lyricism, and therefore balance, and is accordingly difficult listening. But the payoff would come in Mussorgsky's later projects. Mussorgsky came to believe that opera should be as realistic as possible (but in a way different from that of Italian `verismo' opera) and that therefore there should not be conventional arias, but rather the music should conform to the sounds of sung speech (a practice that would be taken even further by Janacek in his final four operas). The Marriage is therefore Mussorgsky's most unconventional operatic project, and Mussorgsky only composed the first act, although Mikhail Ipolitov-Ivanov finished the work in the twentieth century. There is no recording of The Marriage on CD but an LP recording of Ipolitov-Ivanov's version is still available. Try[...]
3.) Boris Godunov, which drew on the lyricism of Salammbo and the difficult speech-song of The Marriage to create the greatest of Russian operas and one of the masterpieces of Nineteenth Century European music.
4.) Khovananshchina is in certain respects similar to Boris Godunov in its use of a historical narrative, though one from a hundred years after the events of Boris. On the whole the music is perhaps even more lyrical than Boris Godunov, though in other respects even more Russian.
5.) Sorochinsky Fair, which was Mussorgsky's last project, on which he worked during breaks in the composition of Khovanshchina. The opera has been put together in a working version from fragments and is surprisingly effective. It features some memorable music, in particular a very fine aria by the lead female character, which is Mussorgsky at his most lyrical and almost Tchaikovsy-esque. There is a recording of Sorochinsky Fair on CD, but it is hard to track down.
6.) Pugachevshchina (The Pugachev Affair), which remained at the level of an idea for an opera, though Mussorgsky did compile some folk material for it. No sketches survive.
It would therefore seem from this list that Khovanshchina ought to be considered Mussorgsky's fourth opera, but it is only his fourth operatic project. As Salammbo and The Marriage were never completed, Boris Godunov is Mussorgsky's first completed opera and, in the sense of receiving a full orchestration and performance during his lifetime, his only. But because it was left in a far more complete state than any of his other operatic projects (having a nearly full piano score), I think it fair to speak of Khovanshchina as his second opera. Whether one wants to refer to Sorochinsky Fair as his third opera is a matter of opinion.
It is my belief that had he not been a dipsomaniac (an alcoholic's alcoholic) and therefore lived at least another decade or so (dying at 41), Mussorgsky would be regarded as the third major voice of Nineteenth Century opera, along with Wagner and Verdi. His style is certainly as distinctive and unmistakable as theirs and, in my view, the music of both Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina measures up with the best of Wagner and Verdi. Indeed, in Mussorgsky's sadly small oeuvre there is very little music that is not good and almost none that is dull (his art songs, which fill four CDs, are a veritable treasure trove of musical inventiveness and genius - I highly recommend the wonderful yet hard-to-find recordings by the Russian baritone Sergei Leiferkus).
I also recommend the excellent recordings of Khovanshchina by Emil Tchakarov (Sony) and by Valery Gergiev.