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

February 08, 2014
By Eric C. Simpson
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.  The Met: Live in HD presentation of Prince Igor will be shown in theaters March 1. 

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