From The Metropolitan Opera Archives:

Khovanchina at the Met, 1949-50


1999.2.41
Mstislav's Dobujinsky's design for act curtain.




Note: In 1950, when it was performed at the Metropolitan in English translation,
Mussorgsky's opera was transliterated Khovanchina; in subsequent revivals,
when it has been performed in Russian, it has been spelled Khovanshchina



 


1990.2.9
Dobujinksy's design for Act I
The square before the church of St. Basil the Blessed


The Metropolitan Opera first presented Mussorgsky's Khovanchina on February 16, 1950, with a cast led by Risë Stevens (Marfa), Lawrence Tibbett (Prince Ivan Khovansky) and Jerome Hines (Dossife). The opera was sung in English, and was arranged and conducted by Emil Cooper. Reviews of the performance by Virgil Thomson and Irving Kolodin appear below. Khovanchina had four performances during the 1949-50 season and was not performed again at the Metropolitan until the new production in 1985-86.

Of particular interest in 1949-50 were the sets and costumes by Mstislav Dobujinsky, a world-famous set designer, painter, teacher and authority on Russian and Lithuanian traditional culture. Dobujinsky's contributions received glancing appreciation in the press: "The decors by Mstislav Dobujinsky, formerly of the Moscow Art Theater, were realistic, sumptuous and historically authentic," said Virgil Thomson in the Herald Tribune, but Olin Downes in the Times sniffed, "The scenery was remarkable for its lack both of historical exactitude and imagination." (Dobujinsky had been notorious among his circle in Russia for his love of exploring old Russian towns.) In the World-Telegram, Robert Bagar praised "sets barbaric in opulence"; the Daily News called them "highly effective theatrically"; and Paul Affelder in the Brooklyn Eagle spoke "a word of warmest praise for the simple but effective scenery and the lavish and colorful costumes."

Born in Novgorod in 1875 of Lithuanian and Russian descent, Dobujinsky, though he also studied in Western Europe, was devoted to the traditions of both these lands. He was one of the celebrated group who made St. Petersburg a center of artistic revolution both before and after the political one. He designed theatrical productions for Meyerhold, Stanislavsky and Diaghilev, and founded a school of art with Leon Bakst where Marc Chagall was one of his pupils. Later he held teaching positions at leading institutions in the U.S.S.R., Lithuania and the United States. His reputation as an illustrator and graphic artist, as well as a theatrical designer, was international.

In 1924 Dobujinsky left Russia forever, settling first in Lithuania - though during these years he frequently visited England, designing sets for theater and ballet companies and illustrating many books. Shortly before World War II began, he accepted an invitation to visit the United States to design sets for the Michael Chekhov Theater. The fall of Lithuania kept him in America, and he became a citizen in 1947. After the War he designed opera, ballet and theater productions in Milan, Naples, Paris, Brussels and London, as well as in the U.S. He worked briefly in Hollywood, and died in New York City in 1957.

His first work for the Metropolitan Opera was the production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera which opened the 1940-41 season. In 1949-50 he designed Khovanchina and in 1952-53 he remodeled and rebuilt the Met's production of Boris Godunov, using elements from both the Ballo and Khovanchina productions. The Metropolitan Opera Archives recently acquired a number of costume and set drawings from these productions that had been discovered in the home of his granddaughter in Campbell Hall, New York.

The 1998 and 1999 Dobujinsky acquisitions were made with the generous support of the Metropolitan Opera Guild's Bispham Fund.

 


1999.2.7
Act I: A boyar



1999.2.4
Act I: A colonel of the Streltsy

 



1998.2.4 and 1999.2.3
Act I: Two of Prince Khovansky's unruly Streltsy
 

Majestic Political Tragedy

Virgil Thomson
The New York Herald Tribune
February 17, 1950

Mussorgsky's Khovanchina, completed and orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, with further restorations from the original script orchestrated by Emil Cooper, was given a big-scale production last night at the Metropolitan Opera House such as only the Met (here and now) can give. The orchestra and chorus, the soloists and conductor, the scenery and stage movements were all high-class, serious and solid. To list the star performers in the order of their service to the work: Mr. Cooper himself conducted; the chorus, prepared by Kurt Adler, did a brilliant job; Robert Weede, Jerome Hines and Brian Sullivan sang handsomely in important roles; Lawrence Tibbett, in good voice, both sang and acted; Charles Kullman had vocal clarity and dramatic force as Prince Galitsin; Polyna Stoska sang a nun's role with distinction; Clifford Harvuot and Leslie Chabay were excellent in smallish parts and Risë Stevens worked like an artist in a role wholly unsuited to her vocal type and range. The decors by Mstislav Dobujinsky, formerly of the Moscow Art Theater, were realistic, sumptuous and historically authentic.

The work itself proceeds like many another Russian opera, with a relentless slow-motion that may bring impatience to some but that is ever the price of majesty. Its recitative is intensely melodious, its set-pieces grand, harmonious and vividly characterized. There is monotony in it for those who listen carelessly but no banality anywhere. It is a deeply felt and beautifully detailed musical work that it is a privilege to know, that bears acquaintance, that enriches the mind.

The story is moving, too, in spite of its lack of love interest and similar devices for catching attention. It is about one of those palace revolutions that are perpetual in Russian history. Religious faith, political conservatism and human weaknesses on -the grand scale combine to produce tragedy for a very large number of people. The uselessness and size of the final holocaust are what give pathos to the outcome and an emotional catharsis to the spectator of it. Specifically it deals with the refusal of a large and powerful group to accept Westernization under Peter the Great. The Czar himself never appears; and neither do the forces that he manipulates, excepting for one view of his faithful soldiers at the end. It is a political tragedy, plain, clear and terrifying. Its dignity as a story comes from the touching humanity with which all the characters are viewed by the composer, who wrote his own libretto. Musically it is deeply original and alive.

The exact artistic evaluation of the services rendered to Mussorgsky's operas by Rimsky-Korsakov and other editors has never been a worry to this reviewer. In the case of Khovanchina, however which the author left unfinished, and unorchestrated, those services are cardinal. Without them no stage performance would be possible. They were a service of love, moreover, and a sacrifice of time, both on Rimsky's and on Cooper's part. This musician is grateful to them both and also to Mr. Edward Johnson, who has been at some insistence to produce this work at the Metropolitan, for making possible the hearing under such fine conditions of a musical masterwork.

 

 


1998.2.5, 1999.2.11, 1998.2.6
Act I: Women of Muscovy


 

 


1999.2.3
Act I: A Muscovite in the crowd

 


1990.2.10
Act II: Backdrop for Prince Golitsin's palace garden

Music to My Ears
NO RUSSE
LIKE AN OLD RUSSE
Irving Kolodin
The Saturday Review
February 25, 1950

"'Tis true life in Russia is far from gay," sings the baritone. "Our good relations with the states of Europe encouraged hopes of lasting peace for Russia," declaims the tenor. "Ah, now we see the traces of those years of foreign schooling!" accuses the bass. Is this, then, a satire or commentary on the present state of affairs in the USSR? Hardly. They are excerpts from the text of Modest Mussorgsky's Khovanchina, written seventy-five years ago and just having its first performances at the Metropolitan. Incidentally, it is about incidents in the year 1682.

Whether retiring director Edward. Johnson conceived this last novelty of his fifteen years at the Metropolitan as a political commentary as well as an artistic service, he alone can tell -- and he isn't telling. The beards are long and the costumes are antiquated but the central theme is as topical as the latest news bulletin from Moscow -- mistrust of Western influence in the life of Russia, pride in the times. Prince Galitsin tells us, "I led our war-torn troops against the Poles and broke the pride of their insolent nobles."

Art, when great, is justly considered timeless, but it has no right to be as timely as this save to remind us there are some things so fundamental in the life of the world that a few centuries change not their underlying doubts and conflicts but merely the shape in which they recur in one epoch or another. We may as well recognize that security for "Mother Russia" was as much a problem to Peter's Russia as it is to Stalin's and try to fathom the forces at work. There may not be as much time in the future for leisurely thought as there has been since 1682.

In this patchwork of. song and dance, chorus and solo -- and, for that matter, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakoff, for the composer had not finished the score when he died in 1881, and we know it only as "refined" by his colleague -- we are in a period when Westernism had the upper hand and the "rebels" were those who wanted to return to "old faiths and customs." Unfortunately for clarity of plot, Peter never appears on the stage (being a Romanoff, he could not be physically represented in a play during Mussorgsky's life) -- and it takes mighty much mulling of the separate incidents to assemble the philosophic pattern I have mentioned.

Khovansky (played powerfully, if with little subtlety, by Lawrence Tibbett) represents the political rejection of outside influence; Dosifei (splendidly sung by Jerome Hines), the religious force urging return to ancient beliefs as the means of salvation. Always and ever in the middle is the huge mass of Russian people (Mussorgsky called this "a people's music drama"), for whom somebody purports to be doing something - without those concerned knowing much what is being done or how. In the Mussorgskyian connotation it was a reaction against one kind of authoritarianism (the Czars and princes vs. the people). In our framework, it is still authoritarianism (the Stalin dictatorship vs. the people) with the central theme, as ever, peace, security, fear of the Germans (as exemplifying the West).

So much for parable. What of polyphony? Khovanchina is no more an opera in the common sense than Of Time and the River is a novel in the common sense. Yet the aspects of genius which were Mussorgsky's as well as Wolfe's are all over it. The strange mingling of folk-sounding modal music and sweeping outbursts in a rather Verdian, Italianate manner are not nearly so strange or so jarring as they may seem to the uninitiated. Through the Mussorgsky correspondence of the Khovanchina period runs a constant thread of reference to musical ideas "very European" to represent the elements of the story which are European-influenced, with others "Old Russia" in sound and context. To descend from the general to the particular, Mussorgsky was himself a key figure in the struggle against Western influence in the music of Russia. He was by nature (and lack of formal training) opposed to those disciplines and procedures which found their typical expression in Tchaikovsky, considered by his contemporaries the most Westernized of Russian composers.

In this rigorous, rather untheatrical design, interest goes only with dramatic truth -- which is not the easy way of effectiveness. The superb prelude painting dawn over the Red Square is known to symphonic audiences and record listeners (a Koussevitzky disc is still current) as are the engaging "Persian Dances" of act four. Even here is a kind of parable, turning the Russian face to the East -- for, as Mussorgsky says in one of his letters: "The sun never rises in the West." The musical interest accumulates, rather than develops, with a richly interesting third act when the impelling factor of most Russian opera -- the chorus -- finally becomes dominant in both the musical and dramatic scheme. Oddly, the impressive entr'acte of act IV (which Stokowski once recorded) is omitted in the version now given. The Metropolitan production cost a small fortune (small as fortunes are reckoned these days) and, unfortunately, didn't show it, since the milieu of 1682 had ugliness inherent in it. But while this layout is certainly ugly, it manages to be impressive amidst the calculated squalor and barren luxuries. Ten more rehearsals and a few changes of cast would certainly have improved it, but such singers (and actors) as Robert Weede (Shaklovity), Charles Kullman (Prince Galitsin), and Brian Sullivan (as Khovansky's son), made much of their opportunities.

Whether the whole enterprise gained by being presented in English is very much an issue. I can't believe that anybody who didn't do considerable homework could have followed the story from the occasionally intelligible words that reached the ear, and the fault was not only enunciation. English syllables, when tortured into the framework of music written for Russian ones no longer sound like the vernacular to us. "Bring water -- drinking water" may be the translation for what the Russian text says, but we would certainly say to a servant: "May we have some water?"

Mention of the ladies -- Anne Bollinger, Polyna Stoska, and Risë Stevens -- has been deferred because none of them was very good and they are, by and large, out of the main stream of the action, used as devices for color and mood rather than as integral parts of the story. Miss Stevens, who has some of the most beautiful music in the score to sing, did it intelligently and with as much clarity as her good talents permitted in this exceptional part of Martha.

Well, Khovanchina is here, for which thanks are due to Edward Johnson certainly and to Emil Cooper, who conducted. Whether it stays longer than the few repetitions possible in the remaining weeks of this season depends not on Mussorgsky, not on the public, but on the repertory ideas of Rudolf Bing. He might bear in mind another remark of Mussorgsky: "The artist believes in the future because he lives in it."

 

 

 

 



1999.2.23, 1999.2.25, 1999.2.22, 1999.2.24
Act III: Ivan Khovansky's Persian danciers


 

1998.2.11, 1998.2.12, 1998.2.9
Act IV: Three soldiers of the off-stage
Tsar Peter the Great

 

 

 

1999.2.38
Marfa in Act IV
 


1999.2.42
Act IV: Backdrop for the final scene of the opera