`Khovanshchina': Met opera better heard at home. A `Khovanshchina' of unrelieved drabness

Mussorgsky's ``Khovanshchina,'' an unrelentingly bleak study in fanaticism and arrogance, has had only four performances at the Metropolitan Opera, all in 1950. Last Monday, the first of 13 performances of the work was offered in a new production directed by August Everding and designed by Ming Cho Lee. The opera, set in the political turmoil of Russia, 1682, concerns the young Czar Peter (though he does not appear in the work). Peter is ruthlessly destroying the Old Believers, as well as the various factions of princes and boyars (in particular the powerful and ruthless Khovanskys), who are violently resisting his attempts to unify and Westernize the country.

Mussorgsky did not live to finish even his first unorchestrated draft of the opera. Had Rimsky-Korsakov not put it together (into a rather too opulent version), the work might well have been forgotten. Dmitri Shostakovich's 1959 orchestration, used in this production, is truer to Mussorgsky's vision and is capable of casting quite a spell.

Nevertheless, in this reviewer's opinion, ``Khovanshchina'' (which translates roughly as ``Khovansky Intrigues'') makes for a tedious evening of opera that only a visually dazzling, directorially brilliant production could redeem. Otherwise, it is best encountered either on recordings or in concert version with a libretto in one's lap so the endless pages of political discussion set to music can be followed and understood.

The Met's new production is neither dazzling nor brilliant. The opera is sung in Russian without subtitles (something the Met refuses to try), making all those endless discussions meaningful only to those who have half-memorized their librettos beforehand.

Visually, it has a starkness that evokes limited budgets rather than 17th-century Mother Russia. Mr. Lee's sets are unrelentingly unattractive, particularly that drab green cutout of a hanging which is meant to represent St. Basil Cathedral (one of the most imposing and distinctive churches in the world).

Gil Wechsler's flat, harsh lighting gives the sets no hint of illusion, while emphasizing the drabness of the costumes by the usually excellent designer John Conklin.

Mr. Everding has staged the work with action moving mostly from right to left, or vice versa. There is no sense of these actions happening in a context that would give them their desperately needed dramatic counterpoint. As a crucial example, in the climactic final scene the Old Believers are supposed to burn themselves on a huge pyre as Czar Peter's horrified yet admiring Army looks on: It is the final self-destructive act of fanaticism in the opera. Everding-Lee fill the stage with a two-tiered wooden

temple, which is swallowed in a cloud of white-lit steam. Without those onlookers, the image that resolves this opera -- the old Russia in flames, while the new Russia looks on -- is lost.

The principal cast is distinguished by debuting Helga Dernesch's haunted, gripping Marfa. She alone brings a noncaricature sensibility to her performance. Otherwise, the vocal honors of the evening belong to the remarkable Met chorus.

Bass Martti Talvela brings his stiff yet imposing presence, though increasingly unreliable singing, to the role of Dosifei, leader of the Old Believers. Aage Haugland makes a suitably repellent Ivan Khovansky. Tenors D'enes Guly'as (Andrei Khovansky), Wieslaw Ochman (Prince Golitsyn), and soprano Natalia Rom (Emma) complete the list of principals, with Neeme J"arvi, the competent conductor.

The final ``Khovanshchina'' of the season is the Saturday matinee of Feb. 1, which is also the nationwide radio broadcast performance.

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