It was an odd oversight, or possibly it was ignorance, which led Auden not to include Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina in his list of ‘anti-operas’, for it lacks to an extraordinary degree many of the chief constituents which people associate, and rightly, with opera, while even more conspicuously including, often seeming largely to consist of, elements which virtually defy operatic treatment. It may be unfair to describe it, as one eminent conductor did, as ‘Sarastro meets Gurnemanz when both of them are having an off day’, but one sees what he meant. A disproportionate number of the characters are sung by basses, and when they meet — and they do tend to run into one another surprisingly often — they discuss Russia’s destiny and related matters at great length, and usually not to any purpose. Indeed, the way in which successive scenes of the opera fail to get anywhere in itself constitutes a major form of originality, and relates this work most closely to Pelléas, with the difference that there the characters are mainly defined by their irresolution, whereas in Khovanshchina they are almost all ambitious politicians so much at loggerheads with one another in their outlooks that they can only quarrel and separate, or resort to violence, other- or self-directed. It’s appropriate that the final scene should be a mass suicide, religiously motivated. That seems to suggest that any gesture meant to alter the course of events is bound to fail, and that going up in smoke is the only decent path to follow.
It seems all the more odd that the Kirov production, the second opera in their short visit, should be old-fashioned to such an extreme degree. Whereas their Boris relies on suggestions, both in setting and in action, their Khovanshchina is a parody of a traditionalist’s demands on what opera production should be.