Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina has never fared well at the Metropolitan Opera’s box office, but it was hoped that the company’s back-of-the-seat English translation system would help make this sprawling historical epic more accessible to the casual operagoer. That it surely has, although if attention wanders even for an instant, the thread quickly unravels. The composer’s better-known Boris Godunov has a complicated plot, but Khovanshchina is even more ambitious: a panoramic picture of the political and religious struggles that gripped Russia toward the end of the seventeenth century as Peter the Great prepared to introduce the country to western influences. True, the opera can seem talky despite Mussorgsky’s eloquent song-speech techniques, but with the right singing actors, a gallery of fascinating characters comes vividly to life.
It’s here, I fear, that the Met revival of August Everding’s 1985 production lets us down. Dolora Zajick particularly disappoints as Marfa. With no opportunities to unleash her force-of-nature mezzo-soprano and stun an audience, Zajick does little more than wander aimlessly through a complex role, a colorless interpretation that suggests none of this troubled woman’s confusion between sex and religion. As her mentor, Dosifei, Roberto Scandiuzzi projects a more forceful personality, but his bass is currently in tatters – only a temporary condition, one hopes. The Russian-speaking singers at least command the style, but Nikolai Putilin’s pallid Shaklovity, Vladimir Ognovenko’s roughly sung Khovansky, and Vladimir Bogachov’s unsteady Golitsin offer few illuminating moments, while the orchestra plays listlessly for Valery Gergiev. Even with English titles, this drab performance of Khovanshchina seems endless.