Borodin’s original “Prince Igor” shines, dark yet brilliant, at the Met

February 07, 2014 at 2:45 pm
Stefan Kocán as Khan Konchak and Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role of Borodin's "Prince Igor." Photo: Cory Weaver

Stefan Kocán as Khan Konchak and Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role of Borodin’s “Prince Igor.” Photo: Cory Weaver

It has been nearly a century since Borodin’s Prince Igor was last heard at the Metropolitan Opera. The overture may have to wait another hundred years.

The new edition of Prince Igor by director Dmitri Tcherniakov and conductor Gianadrea Noseda, which premiered Thursday night at the Met, is a revelation. The two men have stripped away the additions of Aleksandr Glazunov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and restored material in Borodin’s hand that was left out of the 1890 edition.

When he died in 1887, Borodin left Prince Igor, on which he had worked on-and-off for nearly twenty years, not only unfinished, but in something of a jumble. With musical material pulled from other projects, and the libretto incomplete, it was not even clear which act should go where. His friends Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov stitched the work together, completing orchestration and, where necessary, adding new material from whole cloth. Glazunov claimed to have reconstituted the lost overture entirely from memory, having heard Borodin play it on the piano years before. The overture has since become a true concert staple, and according to a feature on the Met’s website, it was the first item to hit the cutting room floor. Shockingly, it was hardly missed.

This new version is a dark and intense experience that reins in the fluffy diffusion of the canonical version. Much of that intensity is, of course, thanks to Tcherniakov’s staging. In his Met debut, he has turned the piece into a harrowing psychological drama. The prologue is placed in the weathered but handsome great hall of Igor’s palace, where we see the Prince reviewing his troops in preparation for his campaign against the encroaching Polovtsians. The liner notes insist that the setting is a “timeless space,” but the militaria that dominate the costuming very clearly suggest a prewar Russia. Reused for the second act and destroyed for the third, this set serves as a firm and realistic footing to frame the trippy but vivid conceit that serves as the production’s centerpiece.

This production follows previous experiments at reconstruction in reshuffling the scene order. Igor’s captivity, traditionally placed in the second act, comes here as the first. Conceived as a delirious dream of the Prince’s as he lies wounded on the battlefield, the action is placed in a poppy field, no doubt a nod to the flower’s symbolic association with fallen soldiers. This act is scattered in its original form, and Tcherniakov makes bizarre sense of it by turning the other characters into figments that dart in and out of his imagination.

Štefan Kocán’s portrayal of Khan Konchak really did seem like a nightmarish figment of a dystopian dream. Dressed in a lemon yellow officer’s uniform and gesturing widely with his arms, he had all the faux-chummy charm of a used car salesman, and his singing was, unfortunately, likewise both swoopy and soupy. Ildar Abdrazakov, however, was a strong dramatic and vocal force singing the titular Prince, here bringing firm but cushioned tone to one of the opera’s more familiar arias.

The main difficulty of leading off with this act is that there is a sizable plot point that takes place in between it and the end of the prologue—namely, a massive battle in which Igor’s army is utterly crushed, and he and his son are taken prisoner. Tcherniakov’s attempt to fill in the hole is one of the few truly weak points in an otherwise smoldering production. Between the prologue and the first act we see videos projected onto a scrim of soldiers looking fidgety, followed by some cartoony explosions and a shot of a pile of corpses, all presented in oh-so-artsy black & white.

Minor projector hi-jinx unfortunately intrude on the second act as well, pedantically explaining that each scene happens “later that afternoon” or “after midnight” or “next morning.” The massive party scene with all of Galitsky’s soldiers is postponed in favor of starting right off with Yaroslavna’s extended, anguished monologue, a choice that holds over the dramatic tension lingering in the air from the end of act one. Oksana Dyka made her debut as the Princess, and while she had little trouble filling the auditorium with sound, that sound had little warmth to it, especially compared to a cast that was otherwise filled with full-bodied red-wine voices.

One of those voices belonged to Mikhail Petrenko, playing Igor’s brother-in-law Galitsky. He delivered his signature aria with vocal ease, but brought in a little grease and grit as he proclaimed he would live for the moment and engage in whatever debauchery he could drum up.

The third act set is a thing of dark beauty in its own right, resuming in a bombed-out, blighted version of the same space. The highlight of this act, musically and dramatically, was Igor’s desperate and rueful monologue, the most noteworthy of the musical restorations. When he unexpectedly returns to find his people sorting through the debris, he is utterly dejected. Ignoring the excited crowd gathering around him, Abdrazakov kept his voice small, but this highlighted the monologue’s introspective character and underscored his lingering detachment from reality, as he lamented his shame and wished for death even while his wife and subjects looked on.

The goofy projections are, inexplicably but fortunately, completely absent from the third act. Would that someone had spirited away the projector’s bulb earlier. Presenting the dark side of a colorful classic, the physical action of Tcherniakov’s lucid staging stands on its own as a deep psychological exploration.

Noseda had some trouble corralling the crowd scenes in act two, but otherwise led a tightly wound, tautly paced performance. The famous Polovtsian Dances of the first act were riveting, and he brought out both the pleading lyricism of the slave girls’ chorus, as well as the disturbing, worshipful frenzy of the chorus in praise of the Khan. Donald Palumbo’s singers were, as ever, remarkable, filling the rafters with bursting, beaming sound.

Sergey Semishkur impressed in his debut as Igor’s son Vladimir, bringing even warmth in his middle register and piercing clarity at his top. As his beloved Konchakovna, the Khan’s daughter, Anita Rachvelishvili had some sultry smoke to her voice, but too much heft to navigate the rapid melismas required of her in the third act. As the evening’s only comic relief, the gruff-voiced Vladimir Ognovenko and the bright but sneering Andrey Popov were winning as the deserters Skula and Yeroshka. Mikhail Vekua was introduced to the house as the busybody courtier Ovlur. Yet a fourth debut was the most promising of the night: Kiri Deonarine gave a sensuous, wafting rendition of the maiden’s song at the top of the first act.

Prince Igor runs through March 8. metoperafamily.org.  The Met: Live in HD presentation of Prince Igor will be shown in theaters March 1. 


9 Responses to “Borodin’s original “Prince Igor” shines, dark yet brilliant, at the Met”

  1. Posted Feb 07, 2014 at 6:57 pm by Alfred Arena

    Wasn’t Prince Igor performed at the Met (quie a few years ago) by the visiting Bolshoi Opera? I really would like to know.Thank you.

  2. Posted Feb 07, 2014 at 7:31 pm by Ron Pry

    Most proud of Kiri. She was my drum major in high school.

  3. Posted Feb 08, 2014 at 8:40 pm by Eric

    Alfred – In recent news reports, I’ve seen no reference to a performance of Prince Igor at the Met by the Bolshoi.

    However, I do know that the Bolshoi performed it at the Montreal World’s Fair (Expo 67) in 1967, because I was there, at a performance in late August of 1967. That was during the Cold War years, when Bolshoi artists were defecting to the US, and visits to the US by Soviet arts organizations were strictly limited.

  4. Posted Feb 10, 2014 at 5:56 am by D. H.

    There was a guest performance of “Prince Igor” with St. Petersburg’s Kirov (Mariinskiy) Opera at the MET in April 1998.

  5. Posted Feb 15, 2014 at 4:49 am by Chris Wyser-Pratte

    I saw the Kirov production in 1998, one of several Russian operas Valery Gergiev brought to the MET that year. It was quite traditional, as I recall. This current production is riveting. The conceptualization of the Polovtsian Dances in the poppy field was breathtaking, the chorus ranged on both sides of multiple tiers of the balcony was in overwhelmingly gorgeous voice, and the lead singers were splendid. I loved Abradzakov as Mephistopheles in San Francisco. This was better. Great theatre, and nothing less.

  6. Posted Mar 01, 2014 at 10:10 pm by Murray Aronson

    I saw the HD broadcast this morning in Los Angeles. I missed the
    Overture and the concept or conceit a bit much for my taste. I saw
    Prince Igor at the New York City Opera back in 1969, that’s close to 45 years ago! I recall enjoying Prince Igor a lot. I was sitting near an older couple who in response to a question said that the last time they saw Prince Igor was at the Imperial Maryinsky theater in 1916. Still with my reservations I did enjoy
    today’s Prince Igor; it’s still interesting and has beautiful music.

  7. Posted Mar 02, 2014 at 11:10 am by Arthur Siegel

    While the detachment of the Prince and Princess in the final scene was heart-rending, the final staging with the Prince carrying three pieces of debris to downstage left seemed adventitious and anticlimactic. Abdrazakov seemed to scorn it in the curtain call [live in high def performance] by mockingly repeating this gesture. What was the Tchairniakov thinking?

  8. Posted Mar 09, 2014 at 1:31 am by Helen

    I just came home from seeing this. I grew up listening to the opera. For many years I bought seasonal subscriptions to the Met. I grew up in a family of classical musicians.

    I am horrified to see what has become of the Met in the last decade with Peter Gelb in charge. This production is incompetent. “Original” is not the same as “Good”, and this one certainly is not. It seems uneducated, un-researched, and uninspired attempt at doing something different. Even though Fokin’s choreography of the Polovtsian Dances certainly could have been updated in a century or so since he did it, what transpired on stage tonight did not relate to the music.

    This production was the last straw for me. I surrender my subscription, and from now on will stick to seeing visiting productions, like from the above mentioned Mariinsky for instance, or just go to La Scala directly.

  9. Posted Mar 16, 2014 at 8:19 am by Montcler

    Helen, I first attended a Met Opera in the 40s (Carmen with Rise Stevens) and have been an opera buff since.
    A lot has happened in the world between 1950 and 2014: I’m sure I would laugh out loud at the Carmen production of the 40s.
    One needs to keep up with the times.

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