Like his Boris Godunov, Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina is based on a narrative from Russian history. It’s another story involving scheming boyars, monks, the Tsar and a love triangle sub-plot that borders on the ridiculous. At least the composer had Puskin’s text to work with for Boris, but he decided to write his own libretto for Khovanshchina, which does the opera no favours dramatically. As the Guardian review of this year’s performance at the BBC Proms (in which I was involved as a BBC Singer) puts it: “coherent narrative is not its strong point”.
But it’s possible to forgive the longeurs because the music is, at many moments, extraordinary and transporting. The a cappella men’s music feels truly ancient, as if it grew out of the earth and has been sung forever; and the final chorus as the Old Believers commit suicide builds inexorably towards a huge percussion crash that seems to suggest the final collapse of the pyre in a cloud of sparks and heat. It’s the sort of ending that is ideal for the Albert Hall and the Proms, even if a production with real fire in a real theatre would also be pretty thrilling.