Alexander Borodin arr Dmitri Tcherniakov: Prince Igor, The Met in HD encore, Phoenix Picturehouse, Oxford, 4 March 2014.
Great historical events make the subjects of great operas, particularly when seen through the distorting eyes of great literary figures, adding human interest. One can name Metastasio who inspired baroque composers and the romantics Scott, Schiller, Pushkin, Tolstoy. Russian history is particularly operagenic, known in the west for the following landmarks:
1185 Prince Igor (Borodin) Igor captured in losing to Tartars. Refusing freedom for undertaking not to take action again, he escapes and rallies his forces.
1598- 1605 Boris Godunov (Moussorgsky) After Pushkin and Karamanzin.
16th c The Tsar’s Bride (Rimsky-Korsakov) Ivan the Terrible’s’ bride dies of slow poison by jealous mistress of her former lover.
1682-89 Khovanschina (Moussorgski) Struggle for unification of Russia won by Peter the Great.
1698 Zar und Zimmermann (Lortzing) Peter the Great incognito in the Netherlands to learn nautical engineering.
1709 Mazeppa (Tchaikovsky) Ukraine Based on Pushkin’s Poltava.
1812 War and Peace (Prokofiev) Scenes from Tolstoy’s novel.
Indeed, to us in the west the history of Russia and its ever changing empire can be regarded as one great soap opera. The latest episode is the on-going situation in Ukraine where in the first Act the President is deposed by the populace. In Act II the previous woman President-elect (Anna Netrebko?) is released from prison ad undergoes scrutiny by the populace as a suitable candidate to succeed and to lead the struggle for independence from Russia. In Act III the action moves to Russia, to Sochi where the Russian leader bides his time (like Drake and his bowls), entertaining deposed Ukrainian at the Olympic Games (represented as a ballet with gymnasts, skaters and curlers) before seeking retribution. At the time of writing Act IV has still to be completed.
The plot of Prince Igor concerns the Prince, ruler of Poutivi, his wife Yaroslavna, his son by a previous marriage, Vladimir, his brother-in-law, Galitzky – a sort of Duke of Mantua without the charm, and opposing them the benevolent Khan Konchak, leader of the Polovtsians, and his daughter Konchakovna. Holding the plot together with their ironic comments on their superiors are the two reluctant private soldiers Skula and Yaroshka. Defying the omens, Igor and Vladimir embark on a campaign against the Polovtsians but are defeated and captured. The magnanimous Konchak treats them like guests, entertaining them with singers and dancers and offers to release them on an undertaking not to attack again. This Igor refuses to give while Vladimir falls in love with and eventually marries Konchakovna. Igor escapes and returns home where he finds power-hungry Galitzky has gone too far and has been killed in an attack on Putlivi which leaves it in ruins. Igor starts single-handedly to rebuild and rearm Putlivi.
While much performed in Russia Prince Igor is rarely performed in the West apart from the Polovtsian song and dance, favourites of youth orchestras around the world and is known mainly from recordings. Left largely incomplete by Borodin at his death in 1887 at the age of 45, a performing edition was produced by close friends Rimsky Korsakov and Glazunov which until now has with minor tinkering stood the test of time. An excellent historical account is given by Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times This new Met version, a co-production De Nederlandse Opera is a completely ruthless revision by Dmitri Tcherniakov, working closely with the conductor Giaaandreaa Noseda They have gone back to the music Borodin left and constructed a four and a half hour grand opera which bears comparison with the greatest of the genre :of private anguish and public duty Boris Godunov, Simon Boccanegra and much other Verdi. The music is an unflagging stream of melody .underlying the drama in a manner worthy of Wagner.
The performance at The Met does full justice to the opera with a superb, mainly Russian, cast led by Ildar Abdrazakov as Igor with Oksana Dyka as Yaroslavna but outstanding performances were given by Mikhail Petrenko as a slimy malevolent Gaiitzky, Stefan Kocán as a dignified Khan Konchak, Anita Rachvelishvili (recently seen as Carmen at Covent Garden) as the irresistibly seductive Konchakovna and Vladimir Ognovenko and Andrey Popov as the knock-about pair Skula and Yarshka. The Chorus, representing Galitzki’s cronies, boyars and Polovtsians, had mastered the intricacies of the Russian language. The dancers, instead of wild Tartars, imaginatively, gave a balletic performance in a field of red poppies with a dream-like quality representing Igor’s state of mind in captivity.
This new version of Prince Igor is a major addition to the operatic repertoire. It is to be hoped we may see it at Covent Garden soon.
11 March 2014