Friday 7 March 2014

Borodin - Prince Igor

Alexander Borodin - Prince Igor

The Metropolitan Opera, New York - 2014

Gianandrea Noseda, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Ildar Abdrazakov, Oksana Dyka, Mikhail Petrenko, Sergey Semishkur, Vladimir Ognovenko, Andrey Popov, Anita Rachvelishvili, Štefan Kocán, Kiri Deonarine, Mikhail Vekua, Barbara Dever

The Met Live in HD - 1st March 2014

Thank goodness for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Not only are we only really starting to appreciate his own contribution to Russian opera in the west through wider productions of The Tsar's Bride, Sadko, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and of course, The Golden Cockerel, but it's in many ways due to the enormous contribution and efforts of Rimsky-Korsakov that we are able to appreciate the legacy of other great Russian composers who came before him whose epic works might otherwise have been forgotten, neglected and, in many cases it seems remained incomplete. Hence we have Rimsky-Korsakov's editions of Mussorgsky's unfinished Khovanshchina and his reworking of the full version of the magisterial Boris GodunovWhat is it with these Russian composers and their unfinished epic masterworks?

It's also in no small part due to Rimsky-Korsakov, along with Alexander Glazunov, that Borodin's only opera Prince Igor exists in any kind of a performing edition. Having worked on the opera for 18 years, the work was however left uncompleted at the time of Borodin's death in 1887. Much of the epic undertaking of the opera, based on an historical account of Prince Igor's 12th century military campaign against the nomadic Polovtsian tribe, had indeed been written by the composer as whole scenes, but there was little dramatically to link them or even place the scenes into any kind of order. But for Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov's work, Prince Igor would probably not have been heard at all in the last century, and if you've ever heard Prince Igor you would realise what a tremendous loss that would have been. Even then however, the work still remained a series of bold scenes, with very little dramatic structure or meaning.

Thank goodness then for Dmitri Tcherniakov. A controversial director, one who fearlessly takes chances with bold modernised reinterpretations of works, Tcherniakov is however an important and instrumental figure in bringing working stage productions of rare Russian repertoire to the west, introducing Prokofiev's The Gambler and Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride in the last decade for The Berlin Staatsoper, and most recently putting together a revelatory production of The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh for De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam. If ever there was a work that needed the sense of purpose and meaning that a dramatic interpretation can give it, it's Prince Igor. Using only Borodin's compositions, including music from the composer's other works, Tcherniakov has created a radical new dramatic context for the work, and the result, seen on the Met stage and broadcast to cinemas across the world in HD, is as close to an authentic representation of this remarkable work as we've seen.

What the opera gains under Tcherniakov's version of Prince Igor is that it manages to place Igor himself at the centre of the work, while retaining all of the exotic colour of the Polovtsian scenes and choruses, and contrast it with the dramatic developments and the tragedy of the Putivl sections. After the patriotic fervour of the Prologue, for example, the battle with Khan Konchak having been lost in the interim, the captive Igor becomes a secondary figure in Act I, reduced to the background for a sequence of episodes that seem to bear little relation to the dramatic development of the story, involving a romance between Konchakovna and Vladimir Igorevich (Igor's son who has been killed in battle) and of course the famous Polovtsian folk dances. Tcherniakov however, using Alexander Sokurov-like film interludes, makes all of these incidents part of Igor's fevered dreams, having been wounded in battle, making a personal discovery in them and finding a route to happiness and fulfilment, but also realising where his responsibility to his people lies.

Like Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, it's important to get past all the musical set-pieces, the heavy choral arrangements and the strident delivery and make Prince Igor a credible character, a real person whose actions in the 12th century can be understood by people today and not just appear as some iconic Russian historical figure. Tcherniakov's storytelling brings this out well, contrasting the idyllic scenes of Act I with the horror of the fate that is to befall Putivl in the powerfully staged Act II under the drunken exploits of Prince Galitsky and his men, and under the plotting of Skula and Yeroshka. Even in his absence, Igor's authority, his ability to rule and control the nation remains central, while the more human side of his personality is brought out at the start of Act III in Yaroslavna's deeply emotion longing for her husband who she believes has died in captivity.

In addition to the dramatic and musical reworking, the other essential element for a successful Prince Igor is the singing. Russian singers are absolutely essential here, not just to handle the difficulties of language, but for the very specific tone and the stamina required. Each of the main roles have long passages of Wagnerian-like demands that require enormous control and stamina. Ildar Abdrazakov is well-known at the Met for popular roles in Italian opera but has not had much experience of the Russian repertoire. He proves he's more than capable of it here and is simply extraordinary in the role of Igor, totally convincing as a character and as a singer in this important role, commanding in the Prologue, visionary in Act I and inspirational in Act III.

There are no weaknesses anywhere else in the cast. Mikhail Petrenko exudes charm and menace as Galistsky and effortlessly carries much of Act II. Oksana Dyka has considerable challenges but impresses as Yaroslavna, her mezzo-soprano not as rich and smooth as we are accustomed to, but it's so right in the Russian repertoire. There aren't many tenors to be found among all the deeper bass-baritone range of most of the male roles in Prince Igor, which only makes the qualities of Sergey Semishkur's Vladimir all the more apparent. Anita Rachvelishvili has been a little bit shrill and inconsistent in some other roles I've seen her in, but here singing in the Russian style as Konchakovna, she is marvellous. Štefan Kocán's incredible control in the deepest notes of the bass register have been noted before playing Sparafucile in the Met's Rigoletto last year, and that's demonstrated again here in the rich beauty of his timbre singing the role of Khan Konchak.

The chorus of course have an important part to play throughout Prince Igor, and the demands placed on the Metropolitan Opera chorus are therefore considerable. Aside from managing a chorus of 120 singers, and the difficulties of learning the parts for a work of this scale in the Russian language and bringing them all together, there are also very specific requirements that need to be met to make them work. Chorus Master, Donald Palumbo, describes those as the tenors needing to be brighter and more metallic, sopranos being "a little fruitier", and mezzos really singing contralto. The way these elements are brought together is important in order to achieve that necessary sound world that is so distinctive in Borodin's Prince Igor, and that impact is clearly felt. On every level, with important contributions from all involved, this proves to be a stunning production of a major work.