Met’s ‘Prince Igor’ An Exotic Romp Amid The Poppies

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A poppy field is the setting for the first act of 'Prince Igor' in Mikhail Tcherniakov's new production for the Metropolitan Opera. (Met photos by Cory Weaver)
A Polovtsian poppy field is the setting for the first act of Borodin’s ‘Prince Igor’ in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production.
(Metropolitan Opera photos by Cory Weaver)
By Leslie Kandell

When Alexander Borodin died of a heart attack in 1887 at age 53, his opera, Prince Igor, which he had tinkered with for 18 years, was left scenically unorganized and musically incomplete. After all, he had a day job and a family, which apparently relegated composing to the status of favorite hobby. Prince Igor is the best published opera ever written by a chemist.

Bust of Borodin at his tomb in Tikhvin Cemetery in St. Petersburg.
Bust of Alexander Borodin at his tomb in St. Petersburg. (Wikipedia)

At the Metropolitan Opera on Feb. 6, a production of Prince Igor – its first there since 1917, when it was sung in Italian – was energetically directed by the bold and clever Dmitri Tcherniakov, who also designed prop-free sets and used black-and-white film projections to set the scenes.

To piece together a work and rescue it from oblivion, one couldn’t ask for orchestrators more brilliant than Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. They are to be thanked for shaping the score as well as the scenes, which trace a 12th-century epic poem about Igor Svyatoslavich.  Prince Igor entrusts his wife, Yaroslavna, to the care of her traitorous brother, Prince Galitsky, and rides off with his army – ignoring an ominous solar eclipse – to battle the neighboring Polovtsians. (Historically, invading and being invaded are tried-and-true Russian themes.) Igor loses and is taken prisoner by the gracious Khan Konchak. He escapes and returns to rebuild Putivl, his vanquished hometown.

As citizens watch, Prince Igor (Ildar Abdrazakov) reviews the troops.
Citizens watch Prince Igor (Ildar Abdrazakov) ready troops for battle.

Whatever this Romantic-style opera is missing – the debate continues – it has beautiful, simply-phrased arias and the exciting, memorable Polovtsian dances. These even inspired a Broadway show, Kismet, and its hit single, “Stranger in Paradise.” Borodin had greatness in him but didn’t often have time to look for it.

His gifted colleagues were not the only ones to put hands on the score. A glance at YouTube turns up several versions: the overture might or might not be present, dances could be in one or another act, costumes are ballet- style or maybe Mongolian in feel, and Galitsky’s power grab and his followers’ drunken revels are slipped around the sequences.

The opening of the Met production, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda (the Italian former principal guest conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg) and sung in Russian, coincided with that of the Olympic Games in Sochi, where snippets of the opera’s dances were heard in the astonishingly elaborate ceremonies.

Sworn enemies Khan Konchak and Igor confront one another.
Polovtsian Khan Konchak (Stefan Kocan) gives Igor terms for peace.

The largely American Met chorus sounded wonderful, particularly in vocalizing the famous dance tunes from the hall’s side balconies. During the intoxicating music, the tall, wiry Khan Konchak (bass Stefan Kocan) gestured toward a field where supple men and women in white shifts or slacks, choreographed by Itzik Galili, romped among striking red poppies. Konchak says to Igor, “Take any one you want.” (He couldn’t have meant the men.)

It was gratifying to hear the voice placement, in Met or role debuts, of Russian basses Ildar Abdrazakov as Igor and Mikhail Petrenko as Galitsky, the Slovakian Kocan, the Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili as his daughter, and the pitch-perfect Ukranian soprano Oksana Dyka as Yaroslavna.

Abdrazakov, who told a preview audience that his first encounter with Prince Igor was as a supernumary, has a sandier, less patrician sound than the traditional Russian bass, his fondness for the title role was apparent in the intensity of his acting.  As the Khan’s daughter, who falls vainly in love with Igor’s son, the sympathetic Rachvelishvili sang arias of entreaty with gentleness and rich color.

Noseda met with Tcherniakov over a two-year period to create this version of the opera, and he knew it better than the musicians in the pit. The Met Orchestra is a big, marvelous ensemble, so the couple of missed signals probably had to do with opening night. Noseda navigated those moments with apparent calm.

Igor's wife, Yaroslavna (Oksana Dyka) is set upon by ambitious Prince Galitsky (Mikhail Petrenko).
Igor’s wife (Oksana Dyka) is set upon by Galitsky (Mikhail Petrenko).

Tcherniakov set the action of the opera’s prologue in an unfurnished church-like space, whose gallery resembled a triforium, a public area where Igor, in a brown leather greatcoat, surveyed troops clad in rust-red coats and military caps, before their departure. Later the set was a private space where Yaroslavna lamented Igor’s protracted absence and the degradation of her brother’s takeover. It also became a riotous bar, like the scene in Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust. Borodin’s drunkards make grandiose boasts and manhandle distraught women.

A poppy field was the setting for the opera’s first act, where dancers and singers wove through unseen paths among the waist-high flowers. This scene was one of several where erratic blocking swung between bustling activity and inorganic hanging around. Film served to depict Igor’s defeat: soldiers larger than life registered emotion, bled, and died in the dirt with the camera peering into their faces. Silent movie titles appeared on a black screen.

In her Met debut as costume designer, Elena Zaitseva dressed the large cast in Borodin’s time, neither the 12th century of the story nor a controversial modern update as in recent Met productions. She sees Russians – soldiers, women, leaders – in brown hues, the Khan in a smart yellow jacket and the poor in neutral rags.

An ashamed Prince Igor expresses the hope that his defeated country will rise again.
Ashamed before his people, Prince Igor vows to help them rise again.

Some awkward technical moments recalled the tacky production of Prince Igor that the Kirov Opera brought to New York in 1998. A few scene changes left the audience in the dark, listening to clunks behind the curtain, which Met audiences no longer expect. The house opened late, with ushers explaining that the stage wasn’t ready – for a two-intermission performance of almost four and a half hours.

In the final scene, Igor limps home to a town reduced to rubble, with miserable wretches warming themselves at a few fires. Though wearing only a loose white shirt, he is eventually recognized and welcomed. He apologizes for the ill-fated expedition, is joyfully forgiven, and slowly begins to clean up the rubble. The people join in.

There was precious little applause for a Met opening. But more performances are to come, and glitches will be dealt with so the music can shine.

For information on the remaining performances, click here.

Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, MusicalAmerica.com, Musical America Directory, and The Daily Gazette.