Nobody knows why Franz Schubert left his 8th symphony unfinished. Why Modest Mussorgsky didn’t complete most of his operas is, by contrast, all too clear -- heavy drinking and slovenly work habits.
“Khovanshchina” is a case in point.
Most connoisseurs agree that this opera is, after “Boris Godunov,” Mussorgsky’s masterpiece. Yet because of its glaring gaps and incoherent libretto, written by the composer himself, the work is rarely performed.
The production at the Bastille Opera was first seen in 2001 and then mothballed for 12 years. The revival is very much worth seeing.
Like “Boris,” Khovanshchina deals with a dark chapter of Russian history. The title could be translated as “The Khovansky Plot.”
In 1682, Ivan Khovansky, the commander of the Streltsy, the Czar’s elite units, tried to seize power, failed and was murdered. Boris Golitsyn, the westernized lover of the regent Sophia, became the new power broker at the Kremlin.
He too was eventually removed from office and Sophia’s half-brother Peter, later known as Peter the Great, ascended the throne.
Mussorgsky mixes the political intrigues with a more or less simultaneous quarrel within the Orthodox Church, turning reformers against the Raskolniki, or Old Believers.
For Westerners unfamiliar with the twists and turns of Russian history, this is confusing stuff, and Mussorgsky does little to assist them. Instead of telling a straightforward story, he presents a succession of loosely connected tableaux.
The musical side is no less confusing. After Mussorgsky’s early death, his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov stepped in and completed the score for the 1886 premiere, recomposing and axing large amounts of music that he found sub-par.
Parisians saw the opera for the first time in 1913 in a new version reworked by Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky, commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev.
The production at the Bastille Opera is based on yet another revision by Dmitri Shostakovich, the one now generally used by opera houses. (The best among the more recent recordings, conducted by Claudio Abbado, uses the Shostakovich score with Stravinsky’s finale.)
Mercifully, Andrei Serban, the director, hasn’t fallen into the trap of updating the story to present-day Russia with its tug-of-war between the authoritarian Putin clan and the more liberal Medvedev faction.
Nor does he draw a parallel between the religious struggle in the 17th century and the fight of modern iconoclasts against an increasingly reactionary Orthodox Church.
What you see is a semi-abstract, disarmingly conventional set (Richard Hudson) with fairy-tale costumes in vivid colors, with icons, onion domes and perpetual crossings of forehead and chest.
Serban is no Eisenstein who, in his movie “Ivan the Terrible,” portrayed the sinister power struggles in Moscow with an almost demonic theatricality. At the Bastille Opera, we never get beyond picturesque cliches.
Unlike Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina has no hero, unless you bestow that honor on the ubiquitous, and excellent, chorus.
All the soloists have been imported from Eastern Europe. The best of the lot are Orlin Anastassov’s imposing Dosifei, the leader of the Old Believers, Vsevolod Grivnov’s suitably neurotic Golitsyn and Sergei Murzaev’s vigorous Shaklovity, Khovansky’s rival and eventual successor.
Khovansky himself (Gleb Nikolsky) sounds a bit strained. The two holdovers from the 2001 premiere, Vladimir Galusin as Khovansky’s lecherous son Andrei, and Larissa Diadkova as Marfa, Andrei’s discarded lover who leads the Old Believers to their final self-immolation, may have sounded fresher 12 years ago, yet they’re still pretty impressive.
Michail Jurowski, a 67-year-old Shostakovich specialist, making a belated debut at the Paris Opera, provides a firm, atmospheric reading of the score.
“Khovanshchina” is in repertory through Feb. 9. Information: http://www.operadeparis.fr.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)