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The Sunday Opera: Modest Mussorgsky's "Khovanshchina"

Modest Mussorgsky planned many projects, and many of those never made it to fruition. We’ll hear one of them on this week’s Sunday Opera (4/9 3:00 p.m.) when we hear his last completed opera (vocal/piano score), “Khovanshchina” in a 1990 production conducted by Claudio Abbado.

“Khovanshchina” was not orchestrated when Mussorgsky died in 1881, but it was completed first by Rimsky-Korsakov for it’s 1882 premier. Further “completed” versions were delivered by Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel in a disastrous version, and the final version, which is the one that seems to be the most performed, is the one completed by Dmitri Shostakovich, but in the version to which we’ll be listening, the finale is one of the only remaining pieces of the Stravinsky version.

The opera is subtitled a “national music drama” and relates supposedly true events in Russia’s history that deal with the conflict between Tsar Peter I’s desire to “modernize” Russia in 1682 including religion and the schismatics or “old believers.” This, combined with political intrigue and a fight for military control, causes such a disruption in society that the schismatics see no other way to further their cause than to die in a mass self-immolation before they can be arrested.

The plot has far too many characters and complications to explain quickly, but suffice it to say that all will be explained in the synopsis before each segment.

The cast includes Aage Haughland, Vladimir Atlantov, Vladimir Popov, Joanna Borowska, Marjana Lipovsek, and Paata Burchuladze. Claudio Abbado conducts the Slovak Philharmonic Choir, Brataslava, the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, and the Vienna Boys’ Choir.

Although the opera may be unfamiliar, we’ll turn to two of Musorgsky’s works afterwards that you’re sure to know. The first is the orchestral version of his Pictures at an exhibition, and the second is his Saint John’s Night on Bald Mountain in an interesting arrangement for brass ensemble.

Michael is program host and host of the WWFM Sunday Opera, Sundays at 3 pm, and co-host of The Dress Circle, Sundays at 7 pm.
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