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Image Entertainment presents
Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina (The Khovansky Affair) (1989)

"Who dares tell us what to do? Is there one here who dares to oppose us?"
- Prince Ivan Khovansky (Nicolai Ghiaurov)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: March 30, 2001

Stars: Nicolai Ghiaurov, Vladimir Atlantov, Yury Maruzin, Anatoly Kocherga, Partu Bruchhuladze, Ludmila Semtschuk
Other Stars: Brigitte Poschner, Heinz Zedmik, Joanna Borowska, Peter Koves, The Vienna State Opera orchestra and chorus
Director: Alfred Kirchner

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence)
Run Time: 02h:52m:47s
Release Date: March 27, 2001
UPC: 014381924329
Genre: opera

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-B+A- D-

DVD Review

The Vienna State Opera brings to the stage one of the less-well-known operatic works by one of the great composers, Modest Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina. Left unfinished at the composer's death, the opera was taken up in turn by Igor Stravinsky, who composed the final chorus, and Dmitri Shostakovitch, who completed the orchestration. If nothing else, this opera has a very illustrious pedigree.

Based on an historical incident, the story takes place in 1682 Russia, during the first year of the regency of Tsar Peter, who would later become Peter the Great. His half-sister Sophia acted as regent and essentially ruled Russia for seven years. She achieved this power largely through the support of the militia, or Streltsy, which was led by Prince Ivan Khovansky. His support amongst the people was also tied closely to the Old Believers, a fundamentalist sect which disapproved of Westernization. As the opera begins, one of the boyars (noblemen), Shakovity (Anatoly Kocherga), dictates an anonymous letter denouncing Khovansky (Nicolai Ghiaurov) to the Tsarina. Shaklovity's motives are never made clear, but the letter has effect. Before long, Khovansky is deprived of his lands and titles, as is his son Andrei (Vladimir Atlantov), whom he had hoped to make Tsar. Although not addressed in the opera (which was apparently written for an audience well familiar with Russian history), Sophia was willing to remove Khovansky out of fear that he might turn the Streltsy against her. Along with him, the Old Believers are sentenced to die, making it clear that genocide is nothing new in Russia.

As noted, there are a great many holes in motivation and detail here that make the opera somewhat inaccessible without some prior reading on Russian history. However, the reading is well worthwhile, for the opera contains some powerful statements on the transitory nature of power and the instability of position based on a romantic relationship. The latter is pointed up by Prince Golitsyn (Yury Maruzin), who helped Sophia consolidate her power, and is then discarded along with Khovansky. Even his own ruthlessness cannot save Golitsyn, who assigns one of his serfs to kill the fortuneteller Marfa (Ludmila Semtschuk), who predicts his coming disaster. Mussorgsky's music is far ahead of its time, with a drama and dissonance that would have been startling if produced in his day. Those liking highly dramatic music will find much to enjoy here.

Nicolai Ghiaurov is, as always, outstanding as Khovansky, displaying both strength and confidence, yet making it clear why the Streltsy love him as their commander. Anatoly Kocherga and Semtschuk rather overplay their parts, giving neither subtlety nor range of emotion. Instead, they go full tilt all the way in parts that cry out for something more sensitive. The rest of the cast is quite good, notably Maruzin and Atlantov. One standout is Heinz Zadmik as the reluctant scrivener who takes down the accusatory note. He strikes just the right comic tone to offset the grim tone of the rest of the opera. Joanna Borowska is excellent in a small role as Emma, a German woman after whom both Andrei and Ivan lust.

The settings are impressionistic and suggestive more than realistic; much of the stage, as is appropriate to the themes of the opera, is shrouded in darkness. The costumes of the nobles are gorgeous and highly detailed, in severe contrast to the simple black and white worn by the unbelievers. In between acts, the stage is filled with a slide of an iconic pile of skulls, making it clear where the tragedy is heading.

Much like his more familiar Boris Godunov, the tapestry of Russian history here is dark and full of conspiracy and gloom. A more thorough (indeed, any) presentation of extras could have made this a much better disc. The fifth and final act, is a highly spiritual meditation on life and death that is not exactly dramatic, but it makes an intriguing coda to the work as a whole.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: As is typical in live stage performances, the black levels are usually lacking. Since so much of this opera is dark, with black costumes, this is just as well, lest the characters be lost in the darkness completely. Colors otherwise tend to be good, with the reds and greens in particular coming across nicely. The picture is rather on the soft side, and the camera occasionally takes too long to focus, but overall the picture is at least acceptable for a stage work.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Russianno

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby Surround audio track in the Russian is quite good. Hiss and noise are hardly present at all. The vocalists' voices come primarily from the front speakers, and only to a lesser degree from the surrounds. The orchestra, on the other hand, comes from all channels, making for a fully-enveloping listening experience that doesn't sound too unnatural, as is sometimes the case in such mixes. There is very good bass and excellent tonal quality from the orchestra. Nothing to complain about here at all.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 35 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 34 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: Snapper
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:52m:47s

Extras Review: Other than decent chaptering for an opera of this length, there are no extras whatsoever. This is disappointing in a DVD of a less-than-familiar opera. We would have hoped for some background on the opera, or the historical setting, or at minimum a brief synopsis to help keep the characters straight. But alas, nothing of the kind is to be found. On the positive side, the layer change occurs between acts, a bit of thoughtfulness sadly lacking from many RSDL discs these days.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

A grim and somewhat depressing opera set in dark days of Russian history, Khovanshchina is a very good production with some excellent leads. The transfer is better than average as well, but the lack of extras makes a trip to the reference library essential to getting the most out of it. Recommended for those willing to do a little research, but the story may well be lost on the uninitiated.


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