Borodin’s music triumphs over dramaturgical problems in the Met’s newfangled ‘Prince Igor’
12,500 red poppies can’t be wrong
The eminent musicologist Richard Taruskin has called Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor a “magnificent farrago.” The magnificence is in the music: mighty Russian choruses, passionate arias and perfumed orientalism. The farrago is the story. Prince Igor is crippled by a libretto as lame as one can imagine.
The Met’s new production of this opera — which had not been seen in this house since December of 1917 — rides on the shoulders of director Dmitri Tcherniakov and conductor Gianandrea Noseda. They produced a new performing edition of Prince Igor, culling from what Borodin left incomplete at his death as well as from all the editing, arranging and composing undertaken by his colleagues Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov. They finally brought the work to the stage of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg in 1890.
Tcherniakov and Noseda deserve great credit for allowing Met audiences to hear this absorbing and highly entertaining music. But if this is the best they could do to fashion a workable dramatic vehicle, then Prince Igor, sadly, will never join the three other Russian operas that have a strong hold on the standard operatic repertoire in the West: Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.
A short recounting of the “plot” of the Tcherniakov-Noseda Prince Igor will make its many shortcomings clear.
Act One, Scene One: Prince Igor, despite the bad omen of a solar eclipse, sets out from his hometown of Putivl in Russia to whip the Polovtsi, who are harassing Russian trade routes. (I saw this performance when Prince Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea to keep his hold on Ukraine and its gas pipelines. Some things never change.)
Act One, Scene Two: Igor has been soundly defeated by Khan Konchak and the Polovtsi. We see his slaughtered army only in projected videos. Now a captive of the Khan, Igor wanders bloodied and in confusion through a field of red poppies (12,500 of them), as a modern dance troupe of Polovtsi maidens and young gentlemen frolic among the flowers. His son Vladimir and the Khan’s daughter fall in love. Igor refuses to align with the Khan and rejects his offer of mercy.
Act Two, Scene One. Igor’s wife Yaroslavna waits Penelope-like for his return. She meets with local women who report that her brother, Prince Galitsky, has abducted a maiden and is behaving very badly in the absence of Igor.
Act Two, Scene Two. Galitsky and his men, quite drunk, plot to seize power in Igor’s absence.
Act Two, Scene Three. Bombs lobbed by the invading Polovsti land on the roof of the public building in which Galitsky and his men are carrying on. The roof collapses in a magical Met stage moment. Galitsky ends up dead, as do many of the other Russians. The Russian defeat is complete.
Act Three, Scene One. Igor makes it back to Putivl without his son, who has married the Khan’s daughter, although the pair does appear in flashback for a splendid trio with Igor. Igor’s beaten people, rather than turn on him for the failed military leader he is, welcome him back and begin to rebuild their society, board by board (literally).
The dramaturgical problems here are many.
Tcherniakov has moved the story from 1185 and the mists of the Russian past to the 20th century. This renders the clash with the Khan and the famous come-hither dancing of the Polovtsi absurd.
Igor disappears entirely from Act Two. Throughout the opera he is a cipher, a weak fool, a character impossible for an audience to like. The Khan himself appears only in the poppy field scene, in which he has one great aria with a low note that puts Sarastro (Die Zauberflöte) to shame.
Galitsky and Igor’s wife Yaroslavna have little to do in Act One; then they dominate Act Two. Igor never reconciles with the long-suffering Yaroslavna in Act Three. Igor’s son and the Khan’s daughter have small parts and barely register as characters.
The villain Galitsky is the focus in much of Act Two, picking his teeth and strutting about the stage. But he has only a cameo in Act One and is dead before Act Three. Why the battered citizens of Putivl would welcome back the disgraced Igor is unclear.
And so it goes.
Beyond this, the music of Prince Igor — a mix of Russian and Oriental sounds — is well worth experiencing. (Imagine the choruses and the tint of Boris Godunov, the orientalism of the Polovtsian Dances, Borodin’s Second String Quartet and Second Symphony all mashed together and you will have some idea of the musical riches.) Noseda chose not to use the famous overture, which may have been written by Glazunov (according to the musicologist Levashov). But its themes show up often in various arias, duets and trios. Thus the music is more familiar than one would think.
These themes from the overture show up in Igor’s aria in the poppy field as he despairs about the catastrophic defeat he has brought on his people. They also appear in Yaroslavna’s aria at the beginning of Act Three when she believes Igor is dead. The trio in that act for Igor, his son and his daughter-in-law also contains themes from the overture.
The writing for male chorus is glorious — if you like that sort of thing, which I do. The Met chorus performed at its usual stellar level. Chorus Master Donald Palumbo told the HD audience that it was the hardest score his chorus had to master because it includes so much unrepeated text, in Russian. They had been working on it since the summer.
Galitsky is given a rousing aria similar in rhythm and spirit to Varlaam’s ballad from Boris about Czar Ivan attacking Kazan. Igor’s wife, Yaroslavna, has a melting lament about her absent husband. The young lovers in the poppy field have an effective duet. In Act Three they join in a memorable trio with Igor after which they decide to abandon him and remain with the Polovtsi.
Musically, there is never a really dull moment — although the inspiration is uneven. How could it not be, given that Borodin worked on the opera between 1869 and 1887 and never had the chance to organize it into a whole by cutting and pruning?
That field of red poppies in Act One was indeed a visual treat, if somewhat problematic as a stage for the Polovtsian dancers. The rest of the opera, however, was drably set in some sort of public building in Putivl, with benches or food or chairs brought on and off to adapt to the action. It was as visually dreary as the poppies were vivid.
Tcherniakov might have spent more time directing his characters. The grieving Yaroslavna largely poses, arm outstretched, her face a mask. Igor wanders around in a daze, his face bloody. Galitsky, as noted, is a stock villain. While Igor prepares to depart for war, he fusses endlessly with the uniforms and hats of his troops — a tired gesture.
As Igor, Ildar Abdrazakov offered a honeyed baritone without much individual profile. The Galitsky from high baritone Mikhail Petrenko was on the light side, more vinegar than honey, but he managed to snarl and sing at the same time. The most impressive male singing came from Stefan Kocan as the Khan. He has a Fafner-type black bass voice, perfectly suited to the role. The veteran bass Vladimir Ognovenko (who has a resemblance to Nikita Khrushchev) was a powerful Skula, a traitor to Igor who plots with Galitsky to overthrow the prince.
On the female side, Oksana Dyka was a stoic Yaroslavna, with a rock-solid technique, appealing high notes, and an impressive range. Anita Rachvelishvili was a beguiling daughter of the Khan, with blue eyes and wild black hair. She will make a good Carmen — a part for which she has already received acclaim.
All of the smaller parts were delivered with skill by this almost entirely Slavic cast.
When I read that Met General Manager Peter Gelb was going to ask the company’s unions for cuts in the next contract negotiations because of financial woes, I thought of the 12,500 red poppies and what they must have cost. I’ll bet the unions took note, too.
Still, I was glad to have seen them, and even more glad to have heard Borodin’s music. I would gladly sit through it again, if the Met ever brings it back.
What: Borodin’s Prince Igor, Simulcast Live in HD
When: Saturday, Mar. 1, 2014
Who: Metropolitan Opera
Time: Approximately 4 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission
Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Next HD Simulcast: Massenet’s Werther, Mar. 15, 2014 at 1 p.m. EST
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