Première on March 18, 2007 in the Nationaltheater
ON LUST FOR POWER AND MYTHICAL TRANCE
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN DMITRI TCHERNIAKOV AND ALEXEI PARIN
Alexei Parin: In Russia, Khovanshchina is a staple of the operatic repertoire. What attracted you to Khovanshchina, Dmitri?
Dmitri Tcherniakov: When I staged The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, I understood everything immediately, and all my first impressions were ultimately confirmed. I can’t say the same for Khovanshchina. It took a long time for my interpretation of this work to mature. I confess that until 2001, I did not own either a vocal score or recordings of Khovanshchina and felt no urge to make this opera a part of my life. I saw the production at the Bolshoi dating back to the 1940’s several times in the 1980’s. I best remember the grandeur of the performance; back then, something like that could still impress me.
Alexei Parin: What prompted you to seek an inner connection to Khovanshchina?
Dmitri Tcherniakov: That happened about ten years ago when I heard Boris Christoff sing Dossifei in the 1950 Scala recording under the direction of Issay Dobrowen. Christoff’s special timbre, his meditative slowness enthralled me. I felt I had been missing something in Khovanshchina before up to that point. This opera seemed made for me. I began immersing myself in it. But something kept interfering with my consideration of it.
Alexei Parin: The confusion of the plot? The expressive means of the musical dramaturgy?
Dmitri Tcherniakov: I need to grasp the composer’s message emotionally without having to keep picking it to pieces. Yet at some point the moment comes when I begin concerning myself with the individual building blocks of the work, and doing that with Khovanshchina was always hard for me. I started analyzing it over again – and every time, I stopped halfway through.
Alexei Parin: Rimsky-Korsakov not only composed Kitezh, but also orchestrated Khovanshchina. That was the version that ran at the Bolshoi. Did you like it?
Dmitri Tcherniakov: Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical language in Khovanshchina always impressed me as too lush. My favorite sequence in Khovanshchina is at the beginning of the fifth act with the low, dark rumbling in the strings. In the Shostakovich version, this passage is murkier and more frightening. It really is a pity that we don’t know how Mussorgsky would have made it sound. Allegedly some drafts of the original orchestration exist; if this is true it would be nice to hear them sometime to be able to imagine the basic mood of the work as Mussorgsky intended it. When we work on Khovanshchina, we have to study different versions, concepts and sketches, otherwise we’ll never get anywhere. Then we have to guess the inner vision the composer had in mind. I think I’ve made good progress with this effort; over the last half year I’ve untangled a lot of confusion. What exists today under the title Khovanshchina, and what Mussorgsky had in mind, are two different things. The opera he intended to write is much grander and more all encompassing, in fact far more complicated then the version that has come down to us. It was supposed to have been a trilogy; in a certain sense it was an attempt to create a Russian Ring. The attempt failed.
Alexei Parin: When we draw a kind of chart of the things Mussorgsky originally wanted to portray in Khovanshchina, what we have today is only a small fragment of what was planned; no comprehensive unity, but rather a collection of unattached pieces put together by hook or by crook.
Dmitri Tcherniakov: The connections between these pieces were exactly my big challenge. Not the narrative connections but rather the structural ones. It was important for me to understand why these pieces fit together, what they have to tell me. What sense is revealed in the sequence? I want to recognize the content behind the story, although many people think the desire to discover something bigger behind the outer events is arbitrary and suspicious. Of course there are works in which I do not see any cosmos behind the music, and then the quest is unnecessary. You shouldn’t erect some dreamed up design where there are no hidden “domes”. But here I needed to walk into this “dome” to come to grips with the stumbling blocks and pitfalls in the opera narrative. I had reflected on them before – what should I do with them? how can I escape them? how can I use directorial inspiration to deal with them? But when I began to understand the design that was taken care of. It is a pity that, while he was conceiving Khovanshchina, Mussorgsky had neither the structural thinking nor the tenacity of a Wagner.
Alexei Parin The problem is that Mussorgsky didn’t leave behind a “distilled” final form he could then insist on.
Dmitri Tcherniakov: Of course there is a first plan Mussorgsky formulated when he started work on Khovanshchina. One entire act takes place in the German quarter of Moscow, where Andrei Khovansky visits Emma. Later Mussorgsky cut that scene out completely. There were several genre scenes from Moscow life in the 17th century, but hardly any of them are left over. In the first scene, for instance, Mussorgsky illustrated some entertaining ethnographic details from everyday life in the 17th century. For example, a city lottery, the music for which was used to characterize Ivan Khovansky and the Streltsy. The music of the rolling lottery wheel becomes Ivan Khovansky’s theme. Because of the missing continuity, I needed a long time to find an overriding idea and a main theme. I didn’t even know what my point of departure would be. I found Mussorgsky’s own historical approach unsettling. He seemed to derive everything from a simple conflict. The centuries-old beautiful Russian “still waters” are destroyed by the triumphant ill will of the Antichrist, depicted in the person of Tsar Peter.
Alexei Parin: This attitude goes against the thinking of a person with a European orientation. The “back to the sacred Rus” idea doesn’t apply today.
Dmitri Tcherniakov: Nor can Peter be drawn with a single brush stroke. If this is to be the true content of Khovanshchina, I can find no way out of the situation. I cannot advocate an idea that is alien to me. But seeing the classical opera as a musical picturesque schoolbook example from the encyclopædia of Russian history, a bit of historical painting to illustrate what is still happening in Russia today – that doesn’t work either, it doesn’t make one bit of theatrical sense. It may be important to study the historical details precisely, but you can put them aside when creating the ultimate solution.
Alexei Parin: Khovanshchina is essentially a parable; the historical context has lost its significance. It’s obvious that some of the crucial moments in the opera are stereotypical.
Dmitri Tcherniakov: Khovanshchina is timeless, like many theatrical dramas – from the tragedies of Æschylos all the way to Shakespeare’s chronicles. These works tell us more about our lives than the “grounded” plays with reference to everyday life, larded with juicy little details. It is important to me to recognize the basic style of each of the six scenes in the opera. When I have worked out how each scene looks from the inside, I can gain access to the individual twists and turns of the plot.
Alexei Parin: “Basic style” means coloring and pitch – but not in a musical sense.
Dmitri Tcherniakov: No, the point here is the musical dramaturgy. I made a specific observation that brought me to the concrete solution for this production. I sensed a kind of current in this work, one that comes to a standstill in the sixth scene. The message of the artist is contained in this seismogram. Many things of this kind seem perfectly obvious to me. The final scene, which centers around Dossifei and Marfa, became the foundation of my entire interpretation. When I grasped the basic style of this final scene, namely the liturgy, I began reflecting on what happens in the other scenes – what, in comparison to the final scene, is their basic style? And then I understood the surge that comes to a standstill in the sixth scene. It is a car careening downhill without a brake. The motion is incessant, nor will it lead to disaster – but it does become suddenly valueless. Other priorities move into the foreground.
Alexei Parin: What do the other five scenes tell us?
Dmitri Tcherniakov: Khovanshchina, like the classical tragedies and Shakespeare’s chronicles, is about people dominated by their passions. About an bestial lust for power. It is removed from everyday concerns and typified. All the scenes, with the exception of the last one, have these characteristics. It is an exceptional situation in condensed form. This world is hermetically sealed, we get the impression there is nothing behind it. It seems that everything all around is made up of pure intolerability. The sympathies of the spectator begin to develop only to land right in a swamp, where we don’t understand who is right and who is wrong. The situation is exhausted, the passions have destroyed everything. So what remains? Of course, here I sensed a universal rejection. With a view of the historical chronicles, we can safely say that all the parties to this conflict suffered went down to the same defeat. Even Tsar Peter. There are surmises that Mussorgsky, in response to the criticism of his drafts for Khovanshchina, began to rewrite the libretto. He had, after all, made up the story himself, basing his plot on historical documents – this is the only instance of something like that happening in Russian opera. I even believe he wanted to take historical events that took place over a ten year period and have them happen on a single day.
Alexei Parin: This way many aspects acquire a completely different meaning.
Dmitri Tcherniakov: Yes, for example what happens to Tsar Peter. In the first scene, he is still a small child, and nobody takes any consideration of his will. In the fifth scene, he is a victorious autocrat, who, in the course of only a few hours, consigns whole worlds to the trash heap. He does not appear on stage, but as I see it, his elevation to the throne in this situation is not an unmistakable triumph. At any minute he might cross over to the camp of the losers. The zeal of the various parties has destroyed everything. And so it happens that even the characters who have opted for suicide do not see it as a material phenomenon and a final annihilation. The finale in Stravinsky’s version reinforces this impression. We can sense that they have gathered together to find a way out of an inescapable situation. They feel a thrill because they are approaching another truth. Dossifei senses this and expresses it in his monologue at the beginning of the sixth scene. In that final scene, the categories of the previous plot have no further function. They have been overthrown. The people leave the circle of their lives. They step into another space, in which the categories of their former live have no further validity. They are not afraid of death, their choice is voluntary.
Alexei Parin: They fall into a mystical trance?
Dmitri Tcherniakov: We can describe their condition that way. New truths are revealed to them. While their entire former lives were based on a power instinct and possessiveness, the final scene is marked by the desire to give. Even the tragic story of Marfa’s love for Andrei perhaps finds its solution here. This conclusion illuminates everything with a bright light. It is not a defeat to be followed by eternal nothingness and the kingdom of the Antichrist. With it, the discussion over the importance of history in Khovanshchina becomes superfluous. We are no longer trying to find one side or the other right. Nor is the question of who is closer to the truth, the old believers or the Niconians, of any significance. The ecclesiastical schism becomes a reflection of the political power struggle and moves far away from the essence of religion. In the final scene, a common purpose and love provide a far better concept of God and truth than does the religious struggle.
(Russian-German translation by Sergei Liamin, German-English by Donald Arthur)
© Bavarian State Opera