Learning History's Lessons: Mussorgsky's 'Khovanshchina'

The events in Mussorgsky's opera involve Tsar Peter the Great, and his troublesome rise to power. But because official censorship prevented depictions of the tsar himself onstage, the composer was left to portrayals of the rivals surrounding Peter -- those who supported his assumption of the throne, and those who opposed it.

Peter was just ten years old when the previous Tsar, Fyodor III, died in 1682. Fyodor was succeeded -- officially -- by two half-brothers who shared the throne: Peter, and a sickly, and apparently dim-witted 16-year-old named Ivan. Peter eventually assumed full power when he was 24, but in the meantime he had to deal with any number of opposing factions.

One rival was Sophia, the sister of Peter's half-brother Ivan. There was also opposition from a group of religious "schismatics," called Old Believers in the opera. They opposed all reforms, and favored self-immolation as a form of protest.

And there were the Streltsy -- the powerful militia who controlled Moscow -- led by Ivan Khovansky and his son, Andrei. They also opposed reform, and formed a revolt known as the "Khovansky Affair" -- or, in Russian, Khovanshchina.

The opera has five acts, and ACT ONE is a rather confused introduction of some of the major players. It begins with the well-known orchestral number "Dawn on the Moscow River." A powerful boyar named Shaklovity then warns that the Khovanskys are a threat to the state. Ivan Khovansky himself declares that he'll crush any enemies of Sophia.

Andrei Khovansky also makes an appearance, pursuing a young German woman called Emma. Marfa, a woman who represents the Old Believers and loves Andrei herself, comes between them. When Ivan Khovansky tries to step in, the quarrel is interrupted by another Old Believer, the monk Dosifei. Seeing all the conflict around him, Dosifei predicts difficult times ahead, and prays that faith will prevail.

In ACT TWO, we meet Prince Golitsin, Sophia's lover, who reads a letter from Sophia, and wonders if he can still trust her. Marfa tries to divine the future by reading Golitsin's fortune in a mystical bowl of water. Golitsin sends her away, while giving secret instructions that she should be killed.

Meanwhile Dosifei hopes Golitsin and the Khovanskys will join forces, and help him to prevent reform. Then Marfa returns, frightened. She says that someone tried to drown her and she was saved by men loyal to Peter. The boyar Shaklovity, who is loyal to Sophia, announces that Peter has received a denunciation of the Khovanskys, and is determined to act on it. In fact, Shaklovity made the denunciation himself, hoping to get the Khovanskys out of the way.

In ACT THREE, Marfa ponders her love for Andrei Khovansky. The old woman Susanna scolds her for impure thoughts. But Marfa is ready to kill herself by immolation rather than give Andrei up, and Dosifei tries to comfort her.

Then, while the Khovankys are being entertained by their servants and slaves, news then comes that mercenaries loyal to Peter are attacking the Khovansky's militia. But Ivan Khovansky decides not to challenge Peter. He wants to keep a low profile, and they all pray for their own safety.

In ACT FOUR, Ivan is waiting at home for news of the power struggle in Moscow, and he's entertained by the well-known "Persian Slave Dance." The boyar Shaklovity then arrives, supposedly bringing Khovansky an invitation to meet with Sophia. But in truth, she wants Khovansky out of the way. So as Khovansky rises to leave, Shaklovity stabs him to death. Meanwhile, in Moscow, Prince Golitsin is arrested by forces loyal to Peter, and sent into exile.

The Streltsy arrive in Moscow knowing their fate -- and they bring axes and blocks intended for their own executions. But when Peter's forces march in, they announce that the Streltsy have been pardoned.

In ACT FIVE, the Old Believer Dosifei can sense that defeat is at hand. He and his people remain religious reactionaries, still violently opposed to the reforms Peter will bring. But their hope to join forces with Golitsin and Ivan Khovansky is now gone.

The final scene takes place in a secluded hermitage, deep in a forest. Dosifei and his followers have gathered, prepared to end their lives according to their tradition of self-immolation. They're joined by Andre Khovansky, who is still in love with Marfa.

In a terrifying sequence, set to some of Mussorgsky's most powerful music, Dosifei leads his assembled people into the hermitage, where the pyre is already burning. When Peter's men arrive in the forest they find nothing but flames.