Arts Listings

Arts: Mussorgsky’s ‘Khovanchina’ at First Congregational Church

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 19, 2006

A 16th-century Russian conspiracy swept Boyars and Old Believers last Friday night into the First Congregational Church at Dana and Durant, where they put on a private show of Modest Mussorgsky’s opera, Khovanchina, for an audience of friends and family. 

Scores in hand, the two dozen singers acted out in voice and gesture the tale of a thwarted rebellion of the Streltzy Guards and the harsh reaction of the tsar’s forces, with the able producing and stage direction of Phil Lowery, utilizing only a few scenic devices and bits of costumery—a couple of ornate armchairs, a fur cap or two, white scarves for the Old Believers who offer themselves up for martyrdom at the opera’s close. 

The libretto was translated into English from the original Russian. “This is an old Bay Area tradition,” said the conductor, whose name was also translated from its original language to be listed in the program as K. G. Longfield, but who was quickly recognized by local concert-goers. “Those participating have donated their time for the love of doing this. Some have corporate day jobs and are singers at night. Artists of all sorts have gotten together informally to sing and play this way for generations. It refreshes the rounds of professional performances.” 

The singers included amateurs and semi-pros, as well as some of the luminaries of the local music scene. Particularly fine were the performances of mezzo Valentina Osinski as Marfa, the lovelorn “young Old Believer,” and her love object, Andrei (tenor Codrut Birsan), son of the revolt’s leader, Prince Ivan Khovansky (played by bass-baritone Roger McCracken, a fine and appropriately haughty baritone). Sopranos Marcelle Dronkers and Eliza O’Malley sang and acted outstandingly in brief scenes as, respectively, Susanna, an Old Believer who heaps fire and brimstone on Marfa’s expressions of love, and Emma, a German Lutheran damsel in distress that the roving eye of Andrei latched onto. 

Clifton Romig’s bass rendition of Dosifei, leader of the Old Believers, was impressive in jousting with Susanna or Princes Ivan and Vassily Galitsin (tenor Mark Narins, with bass Andrew Brumana as his retainer), and in sympathy with Marfa, but touched profundity in his solo, glimpsing martyrdom, at the beginning of Act V. Indeed, Mussorgsky’s music became more and more profound, with soloists and duets more finely articulated from the chorus, as the tragic plot deepened. 

Ensemble members (Sibil Demirmen, Alexina Butler, Bianca Showalter, Ellen St. Thomas, Joanne Bogart, Marney Margules, Kelcey Poe, Miguel Fennick, Rick Bogart, Gregory Friedman and Puay Kua) doubled in the chorus and other roles—the women as wives mocking their drunken, or condemned, Guard husbands (Art Mahoney, Wayne Wong, Torlef A. Borsting), or as Prince Ivan’s serving women, strived to entertain him (Kelcey Poe as a Persian dancer) while awaiting repercussions of the downfall of the revolt. In the end, swelled by the voices of defunct soloists, the choir brings forth an unearthly sound, as the Old Believers accept their fate, trapped in a burning monastery chapel. 

Baritone John Burton provides a wry thread of sardonic humor as Shaklovity, a Boyar who early on hires a Scrivener (tenor Ross Halper) to pen an anonymous letter warning the Tsar, and later has a Mephistophelean laugh as Prince Ivan is assassinated on his way to a meeting with the Tsarevna which the boyar had urged the prince to attend. 

Pianist Doug Han, whom Phil Lowery credited with much of the musical preparation, accompanied the show with exceptional playing, laced with remarkable figures, arpeggios and arabesques. 

At the end—rebels defeated, assassinated, exiled or run to ground, and the Old Believers self-immolated—artists and audience retired in true Russian fashion to a pot-luck repast, marvelous in its diversity, though somewhat scant in black caviar, starka vodka and blinis.