Peter is still Great: Chovanščina Debuts at La Scala
The beauty of Chovanščina (or Khovanshchina) is epic and visionary in its nature. Modest Petrovič Musorgsky worked at this opera for a very long time, from 1872 to 1880, carrying out his so called “national musical drama,” but orchestrating only two short sections, and after his death the work was completed and orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
The author’s intent was to compose a great historical work on the turbulent and crucial period that saw the full conquest of the present and the consequent modern Westernization of Russia by Peter the Great. The work intertwines a variety of events that took place during the long succession crisis between 1682 and 1689, at a time when the future Tsar found himself facing the attacks of various opponents: it concerns the rebellion of Prince Ivan Khovansky, the Old Believers, and the Muscovite Streltsy against the regent Sofia Alekseyevna and the two young Tsars Peter the Great and Ivan V, who were attempting to institute Westernizing reforms in Russia. Khovansky had helped to foment the Moscow Uprising of 1682, which resulted in Sofia becoming regent on behalf of her younger brother Ivan and half-brother Peter, who were crowned joint Tsars. In the fall of 1682 Prince Ivan Khovansky turned against Sofia, supported by the Old Believers and the Streltsy, Khovansky — who supposedly wanted to install himself as the new regent. As a matter of fact, the title of the work, Chovanšcina, refers to Peter’s disdainful comment: Chovanšcina means precisely “a Chovanskij stunt,” reported by the boyar Fëdor Šaklovityj at the end of the II Act, regarding Ivan Chovanskij’s attempt to put his son Andrej on the throne.
This is a triumphant return of Chovanščina at La Scala, with Valery Gergiev on the podium and filmmaker Mario Martone directing the opera, with the phantasmagorical scenes designed by Margerita Palli, who illustrated the intricate parable about power, projecting it into a future. The setting is not transposed to nowadays, but to a dystopic and apocalyptic undefined time. The scenery is predominantly monochromatic, with grey hues that set an ominous atmosphere.
Mario Martone ingeniously invented the apparitions of the elegant regent Sofia, with the two brothers, one of which is destined to become Peter the Great. What awaits them all is doom, as the majestic and cataclysmic ending — that seems to tribute Lars von Trier’s Melancholia — is represented by an Armageddon–esque ball of fire that annihilates all of humanity.
Valery Gergiev in this repertoire is unsurpassed for precision and energy, his direction is sumptuous, supported by the choir and orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, and Bruno Casoni’s direction of the choir. The cast chosen by Gergiev is exquisite, with Ekaterina Semenchuk in the role of Marfa, Evgenia Muraveva playing Emma along with Russian lyrical performers of the calibre of Mikhail Petrenko (Prince Ivan), Sergey Skorokhodov (Prince Andrej), Evgeny Akimov (Prince Vasilij Golitsin), Alexey Markov (the Bojan Šaklovityj), Stanislav Trofimov (Dosifej), Irina Vashchenko (Susanna, an old schismatic), Maxim Paster (Scrivener). Just as brilliant were the students of the Accademia della Scala, developing their careers as soloists, these include: Maharram Huseynov (Pastor), Lasha Sesitashvili (Varsonofyev, a retainer of Golitsin), Sergei Ababkin (Kuzka), Eugenio Di Lieto (Streltsy #1), Giorgi Lomiseli (Streltsy #2), Chuan Wang (A trustee of Prince Vasilij Golitsin).
This representation staged in its fullest Musorgsky’s realism, manifesting the tortuous of human psychology, that can be found in any historical era, including the time we are living in.