The Metropolitan Opera put on its final production of Khovanshchina , a Russian opera performed only sporadically in the United States, this past weekend. Saturday’s performance will likely be the last time the opera is staged in this country for some time (its previous U.S. run occurred in the 1998-1999 season), but it was a remarkable performance that was both technically well-executed and politically provocative.
In brief, the opera retells a crucial moment in Russian history, in which Peter the Great ascends to power over Prince Ivan Khovansky. Peter, of course, will usher in reforms to politics, culture, and the Orthodox church, particularly by looking to emulate structures of Western civilization. Ivan and his supporters, in contrast, represent traditionalism bordering on reactionism, and the “Old Believers”—Orthodox priests dead-set against liturgical and theological modernization—form the major constituency of his resistance force.
The relevance of the drama today is evident, and the power of the five-hour spectacle retains its pull. The opera’s ending, though, is highly problematic from a Christian perspective, to say nothing of its total practical resignation. Having lost the fight to Peter, a collection of Old Believers pack themselves into a forest cabin and set it ablaze, chanting hymns about meeting the Lord which sound almost deranged juxtaposed against their suicide. So this action, if the audience hadn’t already guessed from their involvement in assassination plots and political intrigue, marks the priests definitively as fanatics. They were driven to this after a long struggle, but still, their choice of self-immolation is Wagnerian, echoing the concluding scenes of Gotterdamerung rather than the ending of a Gospel.
As famous images from the Vietnam War (and more recent events in the Arab world) have shown, self-immolation is a particular type of poetic ending that recurs in the human mind in times of extreme distress. But it’s also an act that manages to be simultaneously self-defeating and self-indulgent. If there’s a message beyond the raw expression of frustration, it’s that politics (even ecclesial politics) reigns supreme and victory or loss in that arena is more or less the determinant of a life well-lived. The opera’s composer was obviously making a point and creating an allegory for his own time period, but it’s difficult not to assess the actions of the Old Believers within the context of the show itself as almost the antithesis of orthodoxy and conservatism.