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New York Times
December 19, 2001
Echoes of Contemporary Battle Lines in Old Russia

PARIS, Dec. 18 -- Even when history repeats itself, it rarely does so to music. And yet it was hard to emerge from Andrei Serban's acclaimed new production of Mussorgsky's "Khovanshchina" at the Bastille Opera without remarking almost too obviously on the parallels between 17th-century Russia and, say, Afghanistan, Iran and Russia today.

Happily, there was no need for burkas, turbans or the leather jackets of the Russian mafia. Even with the dozen singers and a chorus of 120 decked out in the rich colors of period costumes, the political choices on offer — a known past facing an uncertain future, religious fundamentalism resisting secular power, conservatism versus reform — seemed very much of the moment. Mr. Serban, wary of overdrawing historical analogies, did draw a line. The opera's Old Believers who opposed westernization, he stressed, were not the Taliban. But he was nonetheless struck by how czarist Russia's struggle with the future resembled today's confused world, "where progress in the West leads nowhere, where divisions between peoples grow, where religious fanaticism is on the rise."

James Conlon, who conducted the Paris National Opera's orchestra and chorus with panache last week, also felt swept up by "history with a big H," as he put it. "For these performances," he wrote in a program essay, "I want to find a solution that corresponds with the events of our world today in expressing the violence of the polarization between old tradition and modernization."

There is that and more in "Khovanshchina," which takes place between 1682 and 1688, when Peter the Great was still a teenager and his older sister, Sophia, was the regent. Combating their reformist efforts in the name of God and Mother Russia are manipulated mobs; an abusive militia known as the Streltsy, led by some nobles; and the Old Believers, a mystical sect opposed to the use of Greek rites in the Russian Orthodox Church.

In the confrontation between old and new, East and West, Mussorgsky the librettist does not appear to take sides. But Mussorgsky the composer displays his nostalgia for "old" Russia by giving more grandiose music to the people and to Prince Ivan Khovansky, the Streltsy leader, than he does to the reformists. Writing two centuries after the events he describes, it seems that Mussorgsky was himself still trapped by history.

As it happens, this new "Khovanshchina," which runs through Jan. 12, is also a fruit of history. During the cold war, much of the Russian opera repertory was ignored outside the Soviet bloc. After the collapse of communism, Russian and Eastern European singers flooded into Western Europe to sing Mozart and Verdi. Soon, Valery Gergiev's peripatetic Kirov Opera was carrying Russian opera to Western stages. Now, Western opera houses are recruiting Russian and Eastern European singers for their own Russian productions.

Following Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" and "The Queen of Spades" and Prokofiev's "War and Peace," "Khovanshchina" is the fourth Russian opera to enter the Paris Opera's repertory. Most of the fine singers now onstage were in these earlier productions, although two key roles have gone to newcomers here, the Russian bass Anatoli Kotscherga as Dosifei, the Old Believers' leader, and the Russian contralto Larissa Diadkova as Marfa, an Old Believer who loves Khovansky's son, Andrei.

Mussorgsky, who died in 1881 at 42, left only a vocal line and a piano score for most of the opera. But his friend Rimsky-Korsakov, who then orchestrated the work, cut one-quarter and altered it substantially. It was only in 1958 that Dimitri Shostakovich completed the opera with a new orchestration that has now been widely accepted as the most authentic version. It is this score that Mr. Conlon has chosen for the new Paris production.

It is not an easy opera to follow because, unlike Mussorgsky's better known "Boris Godunov," it is not built around one person but rather has three major roles — Dosifei, Marfa and Prince Ivan Khovansky (sung here by the Russian bass Vladimir Ognovenko) — as well as several significant parts, not least Prince Andrei Khovansky (Vladimir Galouzine), the czarist allies Golitsin (Robert Brubaker) and Shaklovity (Valeri Alexeev), a scribe (Konstantine Ploujnikov) and Emma (Tatiana Pavlovskaya), Andrei's love interest.

In this production, with costumes and sets by Richard Hudson and lighting by Yves Bernard, the power struggle gripping Russia is immediately suggested when Prince Ivan arrives outside the walls of Moscow and is acclaimed by a mob of Streltsy militiamen, women carrying flowers and boys holding religious icons. A different power struggle erupts when Prince Ivan discovers Andrei trying to rape Emma, his own favorite. Then, as father and son wrestle, Dosifei arrives to impose order and assert his authority as a man of God. Thus, already in Act I, politics, religion and carnal desire are established as themes.

Mussorgsky's personal sympathy for the downtrodden Russian populace leads him to compose sweeping laments for the chorus, which are highly evocative of Russian Orthodox Church hymns. But he never forgets that real power is exercised by leaders, and in Act II he brings together Dosifei, Prince Ivan and Golitsin for what resembles a political round-table, each arguing what is best for Russia.

Nonetheless, it is Peter the Great and, above all, his sister who will have the last word, turning the czarist army against first the Streltsy, then the Old Believers. After Prince Ivan is murdered by Shaklovity, the Streltsy are pardoned. But when the Old Believers are surrounded by troops, Dosifei leads them to collective suicide by fire. The implication is that history is inexorable, although history itself proves otherwise.

Still, if the Old Believers' fervent resistance to westernization reminded the Bastille Opera's audience of the Taliban, Mr. Serban suggests Dosifei's followers' triumph in a different, very Russian, way. "They are not primitives who destroy sacred statues or blow up planes," Mr. Serban wrote in a program essay. "Rather, they are fully aware that, by destroying themselves without harming anyone else, they give the spirit victory over the body."

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