Modest Musorgsky is one of the most original, nationalistic composers in all of classical music. He rejected any formal musical training, and based his compositions on the uniqueness of Russian speech, and his innate feel for Russian folk music, song, melody and harmonics. Along with Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, and others, he formed a group of musicians (only Rimsky-Korsakov had full musical training) that sought to invigorate Russian classical music with the human folk idiom. And none did it as thoroughly as he did.
Unfortunately, the lack of such formal musical education has its consequences. Among them are disorganization, incompleteness, and lack of discipline. So, when he died of alcoholism at the age of only 42, most of his major works, OTHER than his songs, were left unfinished- often in a very scattered condition. "Khovanshchina" is one of those.
Essentially, he wrote this opera as a series of scenes, rather than a straight narrative. Musorgsky didn't like to work from a full libretto, so he wrote the lyrics as he composed the piece. So, well into its composition, Khovanshchina never really coalesced into a complete work. Late he was persuaded to organize the material which he did in something called the "blue notebook", which put the pieces in the order in which he intended them to be. But, he never orchestrated the work at all (other than two small sections) at the time he died.
It was once again left to Rimsky-Korsakov to take it up, organize it, edit it, and orchestrate it into an opera that could be performed. (He had done this also with "Boris Godunov" and with "Prince Igor" by Borodin.) Apparently, this finalization was heavily criticized later, and Dmitri Shostakovich undertook to re-orchestrate and re-organize the piece. It is this version that is presented here.
And what is presented? Well, it doesn't really deviate from its source in that it is a series of scenes and not a straightforward plot/story. I have no problem with that. As many opera plots are often ludicrous, not having much of a plot is not, in itself, the worst fault. I do struggle with understanding the characters, their interaction, and their place in Russian history. Not being especially knowledgeable about Russian history, I had a hard time following the narrative, but, nonetheless, enjoyed the scenes, and especially the glorious music. (The dvd includes a plot synopsis which is helpful. There is also an interesting discussion by Michael Boder, the conductor, on how their performing edition was arrived at.)
Musorgsky's music, both here and in Boris Godunov, has a raw power that is very compelling to me. It moves me greatly, especially the chorus pieces. After all, when we think of Russia, we think of the masses of Russian people, and it is those scenes/musical numbers that struck me the most.
The production here in Barcelona is strong, especially noting Vladimir Vaseev as Dosifei. His role, as the leader of "the Old People" is crucial as he closes each of the 5 Acts, and completely dominates the short final Act where the Old People, commit themselves to ritual suicide by immolation in fire. Powerful stuff.
I want to particularly highlight the work of the chorus in this production. I love the chorus sections of operas. (It was my love of large choral works that led me to opera in the first place about 15 years ago, and those numbers still offer me the greatest thrills.) Here, it is especially noteworthy that the Spanish chorus had to learn to sing in Russian- not an easy task. Note that almost all of the main roles were performed by Russian singers (as is usually the case for these Russian works at ALL of the major houses). The chorus must work that much harder (and for relatively little pay) to learn their parts. (I worked as a supernumerary at a few opera shows in Boston and had nothing but admiration for the chorus in those productions who worked so hard to get it right.) Here, they were terrific. Sombreros off to them.