Saturday, March 1, 2014

Borodin: Prince Igor (Metropolitan Opera “Live in HD," March 1, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I went this morning to the Horton Plaza cinemas for the special “Live from the Met in HD” presentation of Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, which hadn’t been seen at the Met for at least a century before this production (the last one was in 1917 and Charles joked to an old friend that they had to wait until everyone who had seen that production was dead so they wouldn’t have people saying, “The old one was better … ”). Prince Igor was a problematical opera in the first place because its composer, Alexander Borodin, was only an amateur in music. His day job was as a research chemist, in which capacity he published the most authoritative paper on benzene yet written to that time (the later 19th century). He began Prince Igor in 1869, worked on it sporadically for the next 18 years, and then died suddenly in 1887 at age 53. In between he at least briefly considered two other stories for operas, Mlada and The Tsar’s Bride — both eventually set by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, his friend and companion in the so-called “Mighty Handful” or “Mighty Five” (the others were Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui and probably the most important of them, Modest Mussorgsky), a group of Russian composers who came together in the late 1860’s. Reacting against the leader of the Russian musical establishment, Nikolai Rubenstein, and his prize student, Tchaikovsky — who believed Russian composers should copy Western models — the Five believed in writing authentically “Russian” music, drawing on Russian folk songs for melodies and harmonies and, when they wrote operas, basing them on Russian history and legends.

 Prince Igor began life as an anonymous 12th century epic poem, The Lay of Igor’s Host, which dealt with a legendary figure of the time (“legendary” here seems to mean that he may have existed as an historical person, but there’s no solid evidence of him besides the poems and legends) who led the Russians in an ongoing war against the Polovsti. Also known as Cumans, the Polovsti were a real tribe who in their heyday expanded throughout the Crimea — encompassing a lot of modern-day Russia as well as Ukraine and Georgia, stretching through Wallachia (the Romanian province that three centuries later would be ruled by Vlad Tepes Drakulya, the real-life Dracula on whom Bram Stoker based his vampire character — though due to a mistake in his sources Stoker moved him to the adjacent Romanian province of Transylvania, and all too many adapters of the Dracula story have compounded the error by mistakenly locating Transylvania in Hungary) and even into Greece. They were attacked not only by the early Russians but also by the Mongols — though a number of the Polovsti survived the Mongol invasion essentially by assimilating, using the title “Khan” for their rulers and sending armies to ride with the Golden Hordes. They were finally defeated by the armies of the Kievan Rus — ancestors of modern-day Russians, even though (ironically, especially given what’s happening in that region now) Kiev was and is the home base of the native Ukrainians — in 1238. So the war depicted in Prince Igor was real enough even though the protagonists are either legendary or out-and-out fictional. Vladimir Stasov, a 19th century Russian writer close to the “Five,” adapted The Lay of Igor’s Host into an opera scenario and Borodin himself wrote his libretto from that, composing in bits and pieces and not working through the score in story order the way other composers of famously unfinished operas (Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, Boïto’s Nerone, Puccini’s Turandot) did, and though Borodin led a public performance of a portion of Prince Igor in 1879, the famous “Polovstian Dances” — orchestrated with the help of Rimsky-Korsakov — he left the opera in bits and pieces when he died. Rimsky-Korsakov and his student and friend, Alexander Glazunov, worked together to piece a performance version from what Borodin had left behind, as well as what he had told them about his plans for the unfinished portions, and assembled Prince Igor for its premiere in 1890 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg — albeit heavily butchered by the Tsar’s censors. This version made it into the standard repertory in Russia, but editors in other countries later went back to Borodin’s manuscripts and created somewhat different versions.

For the Met’s new production, director/designer Dimitri Tcherniakov decided to create an entirely new performing version, going back to parts of Borodin’s manuscripts Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov hadn’t used, reordering the scenes (the opera was originally cast in a prologue and four acts; Tcherniakov compacted it into three acts and staged the Polovstian act, originally in the middle after the sequence in which Igor’s wife worries because he’s gone into battle and since then she’s never seen or heard from him again, as the second scene of Act I) and adding other music by Borodin, notably an instrumental called “The River Don Floods,” which the director stuck on at the end to make the ending less triumphal and more bittersweet. In the interviews presented as part of the Live from the Met telecast, Tcherniakov (who can speak simple English but relied through much of his interview on an interpreter translating his Russian) explained that the Rimsky-Korsakov/Glazunov Igor had emphasized the political and military pageantry of the opera, and he wanted it more narrowly focused on the character of Igor and how he’s transformed by the events of the story. This seems to be an odd thing to say about a character that, thanks to Tcherniakov’s reordering of the opera’s scenes, doesn’t appear at all in the second act! The opera shows strong influences from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (still the most broadly popular Russian opera), including the opening “Slava!” chorus in which the courtiers of the Russian city-state of Putivl sing glory to Prince Igor (Ildar Abdrazakov) and his son, Prince Vladimir (Sergey Semishkur) as, having already defeated two other local tribes that had posed a threat (real or perceived) to the destiny of Russia, they launch what would today be called a pre-emptive war against the Polovsti.

The prologue — at least that’s what Borodin intended it as, though here it’s presented as the first scene of Act I ­— also introduces us to several other principals, including the scapegrace Prince Vladimir Galitzky (Mikhail Petrenko), who’s waiting for Igor to go off to war so he can take over the rulership of Putivl; Yaroslavna (Oksana Dyka), Igor’s wife and Galitzky’s sister; and two characters attached to the army, Skula (Vladimir Ognovenko) and his younger friend Yaroshka (Andrey Popov), who in Borodin’s original scenario were camp musicians but whom Tcherniakov turns into deserters from Igor’s army who escape and sign up with Galitzky instead because he’s promising that they can stay in Putivl and have all the women and drink they want, and not have to worry about getting themselves killed in Igor’s war. The big thing that happens in Act I is there’s a solar eclipse, which the boyars (Russia’s feudal lords) interpret as a bad omen and use to try to talk Igor into delaying his campaign against the Polovsti, but he refuses. The second scene of Act I originally took place at the court of Khan Konchak (Stefan Kocán), ruler of the Polovtsi; in between the two scenes his armies kicked Igor’s soldiers’ butts and virtually annihilated the forces from Putivl. They took Igor prisoner and kept him alive, feeding him well and treating him to spectacular court entertainment — the famous Polovstian Dances, one of which furnished the melody of the early-1950’s pop song “Stranger in Paradise” (and for Artie Shaw’s “My Fantasy” a decade earlier!) and thereby became by far the most popular number in the opera. In Borodin’s original, the Polvostian scene reflects story reality and the reason for Khan Konchak’s willingness to fête Igor is that he’s hoping to get him to change sides, like Benedict Arnold, and help the Polovsti beat back those pesky Russians once and for all. In Tcherniakov’s version, the scene takes place in a field of poppies — at least they’re supposed to be poppies; frankly, with their bright red leaves, they looked more like poinsettias to me! — and it’s unclear whether it represents a real event in the story or Prince Igor’s hallucinatory dream. One real thing does happen in this scene, however; Igor’s son Vladimir (ya remember Vladimir?) falls helplessly in love — or at least lust — with Khan Konchak’s daughter Konchakova (Anita Rachvelishvili — the “-vili” at the end of her name marks her as a real-life Georgian), who’s depicted here clad in a white half-dress, half-nightie whose ultra-low-cut neck (and Rachvelishvili’s natural assets) look like a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen: small wonder that when she took her curtain call she clutched frantically at her neckline to make sure it didn’t suddenly become more revealing than Tcherniakov and his costume designer, Elena Zeitseva, intended!

Act II takes place back at Putivl, where — like Penelope — Yaroslavna is faithfully waiting for Igor to return home and resume his kingdom after presumably having defeated the Polovsti. Galitzky lures the remaining soldiers at Putivl to support him in a coup d’êtat and install himself on the throne of Putivl so he and his men can spend all their days drinking, carousing and abducting young local women to subject them to the Fate Worse Than Death. Galitsky actually pulls this off, but while he’s taking over the palace at Putivl and Yaroslavna and the boyars (ya remember the boyars?) — who’ve finally broken the news she didn’t have heretofore that Igor and their son are captives of the Khan and the rest of the Putivl army has been annihilated — are trying to resist, the Polovsti attack Putivl and utterly destroy the city, while Prince Vladimir Galitzky is killed in the process. (In the interview segment that followed the act, there was an unintentionally funny moment as stagehands carried off the dummy that represented the dead Galitzky, while the real one — or at least Mikhail Petrenko, who was playing him — was standing in front being interviewed.) In Act III, Igor finally returns home among the ruins. He brings with him his son Vladimir — the fact that two of the major dramatis personae in this opera are named Vladimir is confusing enough, and that the Met cast them with performers who strongly resemble each other makes it even harder to tell them apart — and Vladimir Igorovitch, like a lot of other guys before and since, is still thinking with his dick; the Polovstian princess Konchakova has followed him to what’s left of Putivl and is still after him, albeit less out of general interest than out of a still-burning desire to win him and Igor over to the Polovstian side and presumably make them figureheads to help administer the occupation. Instead Igor pleads with his son to choose his country over his dick, and the act ends with Igor singing a triumphal hymn expressing his determination to rebuild Putivl and turn back the Polovsti once and for all — only Tcherniakov’s tacked-on bit of a Borodin instrumental piece gives a darker flavor to the ending; in it we see Igor pick up two heavy planks of wood from the ruins of the palace and carry them from one side of the stage to the other in what looks oddly like a self-crucifixion.

Though episodic as all get-out — a failing probably inherent in the material — the Met’s current Prince Igor is a powerful and fascinating production; given that it’s an opera I’m unfamiliar with in any form I really can’t compare it to the standard version, but it works as drama despite some clunky moments and sounds a lot more interesting than the other Tcherniakov productions I’ve read about in Fanfare, including a version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in which he made all the characters part of one big family and, instead of having Don Giovanni dragged to hell by the ghost of the Commendatore he killed in the opening scene, Tcherniakov had him “frightened into some kind of writhing fit on the floor by an actor made up to look like the Commendatore, apparently hired by the family” (the quote is from reviewer Bill White) because he doesn’t like supernatural elements in his plots and therefore wanted a live person, not a ghost, to give Don Giovanni his comeuppance; and one of Prokofieff’s The Gambler in which he set it in our time and tried to press the plot into service “to mirror the capitalist excesses of our day.” (“Sorry,” Fanfare reviewer Daniel Morrison sniffed, “but the work is not about the capitalist excesses of our day, and I find this tendentious Regietheater approach to opera staging unacceptable.”) One aspect of Tcherniakov’s Prince Igor that the New York Times reviewer didn’t comment on is his updating of the story to the late 19th or early 20th century — one can tell because both the military and civilian characters (the men, anyway) are dressed in the attire of the turn of the (last) century and there’s an electric light, crudely dangling from a wire, in the ruins of the Putivl palace in the last act (an image I suspect Tcherniakov ripped off from Picasso’s Guernica) — perhaps for the same reason Douglas Sirk moved up the setting of Summer Storm, his film of Chekhov’s story The Shooting Party, from the 1840’s to the 1910’s: because at least the popular image of Tsarist Russia is that it was at its most decadent just before the 1917 Revolution, and therefore that’s the time to set a story of venality and corruption within the Russian court.