This is the second version of 'Khovanschina' I've bought, and I'm pleased to have it. Conducted by Claudio Abbado and benefitting from everything the Vienna State Opera can bring to the table, it is above all else beautifully sung. Dositheus (leader of the Old Believers and in charge of their martydom) is played by Paata Burchuladze, a really wonderful bass from Georgia. The Boyar Shaklovity (who also comes to a bad end, but not in the course of this opera) is Anatoly Kocherga. He is Godunov on Abbado's recording of Boris Godunov. To my mind, he is given the most wonderful aria in Khovanschina to sing - in the form of a prayer.
A lot of praying going on during the course of this opera. If you read the history of the time in which it is set there really was a lot to pray about. Poor old Russia: plots and boyars, strelsy and tartars. I've mentioned (in my review for the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona) the value of reading the Robert K. Massie 'Peter The Great'. Actually the sample offered on Kindle tells you all you need to know for the purposes of understanding what's happening in Khovanschina. But why cut a wonderful book off in its prime?
Lots to like, then. What's not to like? Well, I had problems with Marta, perhaps because I am addicted to Elena Zaremba from the Barcelona version. Nothing really wrong with Semtshuk, but there was something so very sweet-yet-steely from Zaremba, with that voice as memorable as Ferrier's. I also didn't really enjoy the presence of Vladimir Atlantov, Marta's treacherous lover. But it's probably not the singer's fault. It's more the fault of the libretto. I do not believe for one moment the seduction of the German girl, and the later death-bed conversion of the two-timing tenor. And he is also saddled with an absurd costume throughout. Given it is an impossible part to carry off convincingly, I had more sympathy for Prince Andre Khovansky in the Barcelona. Nothing between the voices; maybe simply a matter of acting and presentation.
Back to positives: The scrivener (clerk) is played by Heinz Zednik. He's famous for his portrayals of Loge and Mime in a number of 'Ring' cycles. So he's got that in common with Graham Clark in the Barcelona Khovanschina. I found Zednik a little more sympathetic than Clark, but both have great skills and, in my book, both are worth seeing in what is a less than major role, but a pivotal one.
The final scene is sad. Cannot be otherwise. Historically it is quite correct that many parishes of Old Believers locked themselves in their wooden churches and set fire to them. Thing is, how do you portray mass immolation on a stage. Barcelona goes for white clothes and a candle each. Vienna pulls out all the stops and manages a most moving tableau vivant (or rather morte) that is spoilt a little by a back projection of two rub-your-nose-in-it human skulls. The audience start clapping before the skulls have disappeared into blackness. A bit bathetic. Both sets of martyrs sing their hearts out. Martyrdom was, after all, one way of getting out of Russia.
And a little added negative point - well two actually: the mean video editors cut off the applause video just as individual performers are coming forward. I think this is unforgiveable. Barcelona stays with the cast until the auditorim starts emptying, which is much more civilised and satisfying in my book. And - last but NOT least - the Barcelona is cheaper than the Vienna. AND the Barcelona is filmed in High Definition. AND the Barcelona is just more adventurous in stagecraft than the Vienna. The cast is HUGE and so are the agile sets.
But it's tough, I know. If you love Musorgsky and those Russian voices, you'll get both and play them again and again. If you just want one, I'd take the cheap flight to Barcelona.
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