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Streltsy as revolutionaries

June 14, 2022

How do other people get to know an opera? I start looking at the libretto after I’ve heard the whole thing a few times. By then I’ve learned the words to a handful of catchy melodies, often sung by one person with a medium-range voice, and these words often aren’t dramatically important—someone saying “I don’t know anything, I don’t know anything,” or a back-and-forth about whether something made a noise in the bushes.

The part of my brain that has started recombining poems I memorized when I was young (Я научилась просто, мудро жить, Смотреть на небо и молиться Богу, Как нам велели пчелы Персефоны) also likes taking words I know from elsewhere and fitting them to tunes I’m learning, and there’s one from Musorgskii’s Khovanshchina (Хованщина, 1886) I want to share here:


Where people are actually singing, for example,

Бойтесь, бойтесь, молодцы,
Сплетни бабы злой-презлой,
Что грозит-то лих бедой,
Что казнит весь род людской. (1:41:09–1:41:17)

[translation from the subtitles of the linked clip: “Be fearful, good people, of the gossip of the vilest women! It threatens us with grief and with the end of mankind.” My reading of the Russian is that there is only one “most evil woman” as a kind of personified Gossip, not several “vilest women.”]

I want them to be singing Blok’s

Мы на горе всем буржуям
Мировой пожар раздуем,
Мировой пожар в крови —
Господи, благослови!

[We will fan the flames of a worldwide fire and show all the bourgeois! The worldwide fire is in our blood. God bless!]

It seems to fit, and it’s not only the meter—it doesn’t work with Не слыхал ли ты о Клике, О трамвае-горемыке, О двоюродном моем С бледно-розовым огнем.

In the 2012 Mariinsky Theater production directed by Valery Gergiev, this short song was omitted entirely (I can’t tell if that was Gergiev’s decision, or Pavel Lamm’s, or Shostakovich’s). These must be hard choices—to me this section of Act 3 is one of the most attention-getting parts of the opera, but the rest can stand without it, and I get why you’d want to make a three-plus hour opera shorter rather than longer.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 19, 2022 11:07 am

    “…there is only one “most evil woman” as a kind of personified Gossip…”

    This is how I read it, too. A comma after Сплетни would be in order. Or a dash.

    Mandelshtam wrote that Blok preferred traditional forms and, in keeping with that preference, The Twelve is a “monumental dramatic chastushka.” No wonder it so works so well in Khovanschina, unlike Mandelshtam’s attempt at children’s poetry. But nothing can beat Mussorgsky’s libretto.

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