Handel operas have taught me not to worry too much if the plot of an opera is impenetrable on paper. It's usually much clearer when it comes to life. I've not yet had the chance to apply this theory to Meyerbeer's Il Crociato in Egitto, still one of the more confusing operas of my acquaintance – although that's partly because all the characters have names beginning with 'A'– but it was a heartening thought on Friday when I headed into the Opéra Bastille for my first ever Khovanschchina. Attempting to study up on the plot ahead of time would be futile, Twitter had assured me, and even my date – a former Prince Andrei himself – was fuzzy on what it was all about.
Fair enough. I've seen it now, and while I have a vague grasp on the contours of it – Tsar vs Streltsy vs Old Believers – I wouldn't want to be quizzed on the details. In fact I realised fairly early on that life would be much simpler if I just enjoyed Khovanshchina as a series of related historical tableaux rather than one ripping yarn, so that's what I did. Of course, the French-only surtitles did intensify the mental gymnastics of the thing but for the most part I got the gist, if not of the factual intricacies, then at least of the emotions at play: and that's what opera's really about, isn't it? Even the dense historical ones.
Not a huge surprise, then, that my favourite aspect of Khovanshchina was Marfa. Old Believer/fortune-teller/Prince's ex and all round interesting person (oh, and martyr) sung and acted wonderfully by Larissa Diadkova, one of few names in the cast that were familiar to me. Next time, Mussorgsky, consider just writing an opera about her: she's definitely fascinating enough to carry one. Of the names I didn't know, I was especially taken by bass Orlin Anastassov (Dosifei) and baritone Sergey Muzaev (Chakloviti), both of whom sang so fantastically well that even I forgot to mourn the relative dearth of sopranos. Vladimir Galouzine was unflagging, too, as Prince Andrei, even if his wig did make him look like 17th century Russia's answer to Bill Bailey. Gleb Nikolsky, meanwhile, looked every inch the part as Prince Ivan Khovanskhi: bearded, swaggering and apparently about nine feet tall.
Mussorgsky's score was as swirly and stormy and full of eerie choruses as I expect my Russian opera to be – thanks for your help there, Shostakovich, and yours too, Maestro Jurowski (the elder) – and matched pretty well by Andrei Serban's production, with its menacing slabs of concrete and bleak backdrops brightened only by the soldiers' red coats and a splash here and there of rococo excess. The staging of the final martyrdom-by-fire was especially effective, as the ascetic Old Believers peeled off black robes to reveal white ones underneath, then slowly departed, so that the discarded robes (now being gradually engulfed by smoke and ash) suddenly, and disturbingly, resembled charred remains.
Precisly what happened in the four hours (including intermissions in an inexplicably freezing foyer) leading up to this funeral pyre, I'm not sure I could say. I know Prince Andrei kept stubbornly proclaiming his love for Emma despite her obvious lack of interest. I know Marfa treated him much better than he'd treated her. I know Khovanskhi was assassinated after partaking of some dancing slaves. And I know that nobody – unseen Tsar included – was very happy about any of the above. Hey, it's Russian opera: the misery (and the music) is what makes it so good.