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The Met’s ‘Prince Igor’: A New Production at War With Itself

A great Russian opera afraid of its own greatness.

By 2.16.14

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Just in time for the Sochi Olympics, the Metropolitan Opera has premiered a new version of Alexander Borodin’s sweeping historical opera, Prince Igor. Based on a medieval Russian poem about a military campaign against hostile tribes from the Steppes, it is one of Russia’s most popular operas. Despite a ravishing score, it is infrequently performed in the West. In fact, it hasn’t been seen at the Met since 1917. So the opening night audience was filled with anticipation—the couple sitting next to me included a man who had traveled all the way from Texas to see it.

And while the evening delivered musically with some first-rate singing, gorgeous choral work, and fine playing from the pit, the opera was crippled by another one of the Met’s bizarre, experimental productions. Director Dmitri Tcherniakov was given a free hand to change the sequence of the story, throw out some of the music orchestrated by Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov, tamper with recitatives, and insert newly orchestrated material and music from another Borodin opera, Mlada. The announced goal was to provide a clearer, updated version of Prince Igor. Unfortunately, the piece was so drastically altered that for most of the evening the main war fought on stage was the one waged by the production against the music and libretto.

To understand why Prince Igor is so beloved by Russians, read the beautiful Vladimir Nabokov translation of the 12th century epic upon which the opera is based, The Song of Igor’s Campaign. This magnificent poem tells the story of an ill-advised military campaign undertaken by a hotheaded young Russian Prince against neighboring Mongol tribes. The campaign fails, the Prince is captured, but he escapes and vows to reunite the Russian people against their common enemy. In this production, however, the arc of the original story is replaced by a modern conceit: the futility of war. So instead of an opera about Christian Russia overcoming internal strife to unite against pagan invaders, we get an anti-war screed right out of the 1960s. Just to make sure the audience understands this, the Director ditched the upbeat overture and opens the production with these words displayed across a huge black screen: “To unleash a war is the surest way to escape oneself.”

The action begins when this grim epigram is replaced by a giant black and white projection of Prince Igor’s unshaven, grimacing face. After several minutes, the curtain rises on a large hall, painted in shades of beige and brown, crossed with wooden beams. It was difficult, however, to tell in which era the story takes place. The women’s chorus is dressed in Khaki brown uniforms reminiscent of WWI hospital nurses. Prince Igor, his soldiers and courtiers are in brown military uniforms that look like they belong to the Soviet era. Igor’s wife, Princess Yaroslavna, wears a long, brown medieval-style dress. While her brother, Prince Galitsky, wears a blue uniform with a red stripe that reminded me of a Big Ten marching band. And the comic character Skula, sports a modern grey suit, white shirt and tie, looking more like a banker than the drunken deserter he is supposed to be.

There is only one other set in this production — a field of red poppies. According to the Director, this is supposed to depict the world of boundless possibilities Prince Igor conjures up in his mind as he recovers from his battlefield wounds in the Polovtsian camp. Unfortunately, limiting the opera to just two sets means locating every scene in a meeting hall or a poppy field, which makes for some awkward and confusing staging. Gone is the Polovtsian encampment, along with the Polovtsian warriors. The audience catches only short glimpses of the Polovtsian maidens, who are dressed in filmy white chemises. The most famous music in the opera — the Gliding Dance (whose melody was popularized in the song, “Stranger in Paradise”)is sung offstage by the women’s chorus standing in the opera house boxes. The dancers, who sprout out of the poppy field, are dressed in white pajamas and look like leaping devils from a Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell. Their modern dance movements — swimming strokes, circling gestures, kicking and unsynchronized leaping — provoked embarrassed giggles from some in the audience.

There were many more mismatches between the singing and the action on stage. The total eclipse of the sun takes place indoors, in the meeting hall, instead of outside as the chorus describes. So the eclipse is represented by the meeting hall lights dimming, turning off, and then flipping on again. The chorus of soldiers stands dejectedly in place, while singing about their eagerness to earn glory and honor on the battlefield. Giant black and white images of battlefield carnage are inexplicably projected onto the stage, while the Polovtsian maidens sing of love. And the Khan’s daughter, Konchakovna, sings that night is falling, while standing in the sun-lit field of poppies.

In an important subplot, Vladimir (Prince Igor’s son), is also taken prisoner by the Polovtsians. He falls in love with Konchakovna, and together they sing a stirring love duet. But the Polovtsian encampment has been eliminated, so their love duet is now a threesome, with Prince Igor standing next to the lovers in his mental poppy field. And the pivotal dramatic scene, in which Konchakovna discovers Vladimir is about to escape and alerts the Polovtsian guards, takes place in the meeting hall back in Russia. This dislocation of time and space is addressed by blacking out the meeting hall lights after the confrontation between the two lovers, who have disappeared when the lights come back on. Was this supposed to be an example of Igor recalling previous events? Who knows? But it was one of the most confusing visual mismatches of the evening.

As if this weren’t enough, huge black and white images are projected onto the stage throughout the evening that include close ups of Prince Igor blinking his eyes, Kahn Konchak moving his lips without making a sound, and dead soldiers lying in heaps on the battlefield. Perhaps these images were supposed to depict Prince Igor’s memories, thoughts, and feelings as he recovers from his wounds. But at times I felt as if I were watching a Luis Buñuel film instead of an opera. It was the staging of the finale, however, that took the cake. Instead of closing the opera with the traditional chorus congratulating the Prince on his escape and return, the Director substituted music from another Borodin opera depicting the flooding of the Don River. As the music fades away, the dejected Prince stumbles about the stage, hauling away rubble in silence. His subjects help him. The end. It was such a dud, that all around me members of the audience complained loudly, and many stalked out in anger.

The real shame is the awkward staging distracted from the mostly first-rate singing and orchestral playing delivered by the talented cast. Ildar Abdrazakov sang the difficult role of Prince Igor with passion and conviction. As Vladimir, Sergey Semishkur’s beautiful, clear tenor voice was especially compelling in his love duet with Konchakovna. As the Kahn’s daughter, Anita Rachvelishvili displayed one of those unusual mezzo voices that not only produces a huge volume of sound, but a beautiful tone as well. Her duets with Igor were thrilling. Conversely, Oksana Dyka (Princess Yaroslavna), possesses a big voice with an unfortunate harsh quality. She tossed off her character’s famous lament too quickly, obliterating the haunting ascending and descending passages that make this aria so memorable. Bass Mikhail Petrenko was convincing as Galitsky, the disloyal Prince who is addicted to pleasure. And Štefan Kocán (Khan Konchak), Vladimir Ognovenko (Skula), and Mikhail Vekua (Ovlur) delivered strong vocal performances, as they labored heroically against awkward stage direction.

Hands down, though, one of the brightest stars of the evening was the Metropolitan Opera chorus. The men’s chorus was particularly effective as Prince Galitsky’s rioting troops, singing and acting with brio. The women’s chorus, singing the gorgeous Gliding Dance in surround-sound, was a radiant, shimmering delight and the highlight of the evening. In these all-too-brief moments, the singers and orchestra — under the very capable direction of conductor Gianandrea Noseda — transported the audience to Prince Igor’s exotic, far-away realm, something the production’s visual components completely failed to do.

According to the program, the director worked extensively with Russian musicologists to research the Borodin archives in hopes of discovering the composer’s intentions when writing this opera. Borodin famously worked on Prince Igor for more than 18 years, but died before finishing it. So Tcherniakov is not the first to reorder the scenes, or tamper with the music. But for me, his stark, experimental concept is better suited to a smaller venue, with a pared down cast and an audience expecting something edgy. In the huge space of the Met, an epic opera demands expansive staging. By stripping out the pageantry and focusing relentlessly on the title character’s inner turmoil, the Director turned this treasured Russian masterpiece into a depressing psychodrama and a joyless evening. 

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About the Author

Laura Genero served 20 years in senior government positions, including Associate Deputy Secretary of Labor, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, and spokesman for the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.