Khovanshchina - Synopsis
Towards the end of the seventeenth century Russia found itself in a state of severe crisis with struggles for power between the old and the new, within both the government and the church. Several decades earlier the official church had imposed reforms in the course of which church registers were altered and rituals changed. The majority of believers refused to accept these reforms; these people were known as Old Believers or schismatics (Raskolniki), were excommunicated by the official church and persecuted. After the death of Tsar Fjodor there was no adult successor to the throne. Two half-brothers, Ivan and Peter, who belonged to enemy camps, succeeded to the throne, but as they were both still minors Peter’s half-sister and rival, Sofia, was made regent. She was mainly supported by the Streltsy, the palace guard, whose leader was Prince Ivan Khovansky and which consisted largely of Old Believers. In order to become sole ruler Sofia provoked the guard to revolt and in the course of one single night most of Peter’s family and confidants were slaughtered.
The Streltsy are having fun reminiscing about their revolt the previous night. The Boyar Shaklovity, however, is dictating to the Scrivener (the public letter writer) a denunciation of their leader, Prince Ivan Khovansky, who is plotting against Tsar Peter and enjoys the support of the populace of Moscow. Andrei, Ivan Khovansky’s son, is trying to kiss Emma, a girl from the German quarter. Marfa, an Old Believer, whom Andrei has loved and deserted, tries to protect Emma. Prince Khovansky wants Emma for himself and orders the palace guard to arrest her, but Andrei resists him. Dosifey, the spiritual leader of the Old Believers, tries to reconcile father and son. He asks Marfa to look after Emma and reminds everyone that a public dispute about religion can break out at any moment between the Old Believers and the members of the official church.
Prince Golitsin, an important member of the government and the commander-in-chief of the army, receives a love letter from Tsarevna Sofia, whose lover he is. In anticipation of a secret meeting with Ivan Khovansky and Dosifey, at which they will discuss plans to overthrow Peter and share power, Golitsin sends for Marfa, who has often predicted his future and now prophesies his imminent fall from power and the end to all hope of victory. In order to prevent a public uproar, Golitsin gives orders that Marfa should be secretly killed. Khovansky arrives and immediately begins to quarrel with him, reminding Golitsin of military failures and decisions he has taken which have humiliated Khovansky. Dosifey advises them to be reconciled and think of the future of the government. In the fierceness of their quarrel the conspirators fail to reach a mutual decision. The quarrel is interrupted by the reappearance of Marfa, who has been saved from Golitsin’s attack by Tsar Peter’s troops. The unexpected arrival of Shaklovity destroys the conspirators‘ last hopes. Shaklovity, who, like Golitsin, is also Sofia’s lover, announces in her name that Khovansky’s conspiracy is known to the court and has been referred to as „The Khovansky Cause“ (Khovanshchina) by Tsar Peter. An investigation into the conspiracy has been set in motion.
Marfa is accused of irredeemable sin by several strict Old Believers because of her selfless love for Andrei. Dosifey defends Marfa against these accusations. Marfa confesses to Dosifey just how much this passion causes her pain; the only release she can see would be to burn herself to death together with her beloved. Dosifey tells her he thinks it is too early to give up the fight.
Shaklovity is obsessed with the idea of saving Russia from a government which oppresses her and places all his hopes on a strong single ruler.
Drunken Streltsy approach, singing and creating an uproar which their womenfolk are unable to still. At the height of the brawl the Scrivener appears and spreads panic among the Streltsy with the news of the approach of Petrovsky troops, Tsar Peter’s bodyguards. Ivan Khovansky orders the Streltsy not to resist and to shut themselves inside their houses.
Act Four Scene One
In his own house Ivan Khovansky tries to suppress his fear, which is further increased by Golitsin's messenger arriving to warn him of his imminent fall from power. All attempts by his servants to distract Khovansky fail. Shaklovity enters bringing an invitation for Khovansky to the Tsarevna Sofia’s council. This invitation proves, however, to be a messenger of death for the prince.
Act Four Scene Two
A second conspirator, in the person of Golitsin, also meets his fate; the people of Moscow demonstrate their sympathy as they watch him being taken away into exile. Marfa brings Dosifey the news that the government has ordered all Old Believers to be killed. Dosifey decides that they should all burn themselves alive. Marfa tells Andrei Khovansky about his father’s death and that Tsar Peter’s guards are also looking for him. Andrei does not believe her and accuses her of destroying his life with her sorcery. The tolling of the bells to announce the execution of the Streltsy, who have been condemned to death by Tsar Peter, convinces Andrei, however, that Marfa has told him the truth. He is now ready to follow her wherever she goes. Tsar Peter pardons the Streltsy at the last minute.
As they can no longer see any way out, Dosifey, Marfa, Andrei and other Old Believers choose to give up their life on earth and seek salvation in another world.
Dmitri Tcherniakov / Alexej Parin
© Bavarian State Opera