Major Operas | Khovanshchina by Modest Mussorgsky | High Romantic

Khovanshchina (‘The Khovansky Affair’), a dark opera, full of conspiracy, gloom and imminent violence, was based on a historical event. In 1682, the future modernizing tsar Peter the Great (1672–1725) was made co-ruler of Russia with his mentally retarded half-brother Ivan V (1666–96).

At this time, introducing Greek and Latin practices into the Russian Church was bitterly opposed by the ‘Old Believers’, a sect led by the ‘archpriest’ Avvakum. Avvakum was burned at the stake in 1682, and groups of Old Believers, up to 2,500 at a time, committed suicide by fire rather than compromise their faith. Some productions of Khovanshchina have reproduced this mass burning by means of flickering tongues of light. Mussorgsky left the opera unfinished and there was no orchestration for the vocal score. It was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov and in 1886 the first performance was given at the Kononov Hall in St Petersburg, by an amateur musical drama group. The first professional production was not staged until 1911, when it was performed at the Maryinsky Theatre.

Composed: 1872–80; 5th act unfinished
Premiered: 1886, St Petersburg
Libretto by the composer, compiled with Vladimir Vasil’yevich Stasov


When Tsar Fyodor III died in 1682, his brother Ivan and half-brother Peter were made co-tsars, with Ivan’s sister Sophia as regent. Their mothers’ families fought for power. Ivan’s faction was backed by Prince Ivan Khovansky, leader of the strel’tsï (musketeers), and his son Andrey.

Act I

Strel’tsï are on guard in Red Square. Boyar Shaklovity, the regent’s agent, dictates a letter to a scribe denouncing the Khovansky faction. Ivan Khovansky enters and vows to crush opposition to the royal family. Emma, a German girl, enters, trying to escape from Andrey Khovansky, who is stopped by his former lover Marfa, now a member of the Old Believers sect. His father demands Emma for himself but Andrey refuses to let her go. They are interrupted by Dosifei, leader of the Old Believers. The strel’tsï are ordered back to the Kremlin and Dosifei broods on the preservation of the faith.

Act II

In his study Prince Golitsïn, Sophia’s principal minister, is reading a love-letter from her and wondering whether she is to be trusted. A Lutheran pastor comes to complain about Emma’s treatment by the Khovanskys. Marfa is brought in to read Golitsïn’s fortune. She foresees his disgrace and exile and he gives secret orders to drown her. Ivan Khovansky enters and accuses Golitsïn of attacking the boyars’ hereditary rights. Dosifei urges them both to join him in restoring the traditional faith. Marfa bursts in and describes how Golitsïn’s men tried to kill her and how she was rescued by Tsar Peter’s guards. Shaklovity informs them that, acting on a letter of denunciation, Peter has vowed to destroy the Khovanskys’ power.


On the other side of the river, Marfa recalls her unrequited love for Andrey and is denounced by Susanna as a servant of the devil. Dosifei tries to comfort Marfa, but she exultantly predicts that soon she and...

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