Director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s highly anticipated Met debut is a new production of Borodin’s Prince Igor. It seems a safe corner of the repertoire to cache a potentially incendiary production—a rarely-produced, textually unstable work from Russia, a nation that has generally been considered peripheral to the operatic tradition as a whole. In other words, it’s not an opening night production of La traviata at La Scala, where Tcherniakov was, er, not exactly warmly welcomed. In contrast, this Prince Igor is subtle, unflashy, and sometimes as fragmentary and elusive as the opera text it stages. It’s musically strong, if not overwhelming, but in all is quietly radical.
Borodin et al., Prince Igor. Met Opera, 2/21/14. Production directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, conducted by Pavel Smelkov with Ildar Abdrazakov (Igor), Mikhail Petrenko (Galitsky), Sergey Semishkur (Vladimir), Oksana Dyka (Yaroslavna), Anita Rachvelishvili (Konchakovna), Stefan Kocan (Khan Konchak).
(I can’t promise to cover everything here, my head is currently afflicted by both the flu and the dissertation. About one month from the big deadline! But I’d like to talk about a few things I thought were interesting in this production. Excuse me if I am scattered and/or even less edited than usual.)
The “reconstruction of the authentic Prince Igor” that this production is being called in some Met-publicity parts is a misnomer, because this opera never saw a stage during its composer, Borodin’s, lifetime and a lot of the completion done by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov is necessary just to put the thing on with an orchestra in the pit. This edition claims to include all of Borodin’s music (Rimsky and Glazunov didn’t use all of it), puts in an unusual version of Igor’s last act monologue, interpolates some music from Mlada in a rather stunning ending, and, most drastically, reverses the first two acts so the Polovetsian one, usually number two, comes first and we return to Igor’s court in the second. (This latter move is based on some textual evidence on whose authority I am not qualified to comment.) Anyway, I suggest we stop getting overly hung up on textual cleanliness, particularly when we’re dealing with an opera that’s always going to be messy.
Tcherniakov’s main setting, Igor’s palace, is a big and solid medieval-looking hall. The scenes are interspersed with high resolution black and white films of the soldiers and, eventually, Igor himself getting badly hurt in battle. When he wakes, the rest of the act takes place solely in his head, in the land of the barbarian hoards, he’s landed in a flowery field that seems to be the offspring of Klingsor and Armida. In this fantasy space, he (and his son Vladimir) must decide to, as Flower Maidens and Armidas, etc. always put it, to Submit to Pleasure, here expressed in some stretchy sort of ballet. Pleasure is also personified by Konchakovna, the throaty mezzo daughter of the local Khan, who is rather a break in Fach when it comes to vaguely fairy-like young maidens. Then we return to Igor’s court, where the action is kind of surprisingly conventional and literal, and Igor’s brother-in-law Galitzky is making a bacchanalian mess of things. Finally, at the end, Igor returns and faces a large clean-up job. The ending, to the redemptive strains of Mlada, is beautiful and poetic.
I think the most interesting thing about this production is how it’s Russian but without being totally about Russian history in the way we always expect. By putting the Polovetsian action in Igor’s head rather than reality, he takes the imperialism right out of there. At first I found this disconcerting, because we’re somewhere in the twentieth century and I couldn’t quite figure out which part and dealing with Russia that makes a big difference. But I was asking the wrong question. In the West, Russian opera is assumed to be inevitably extreeeeemly nationally marked. I mean, we think it’s this, basically:
That’s the Polonaise from Stefan Herheim’s production of Onegin and it’s, er, not meant entirely in earnest. But I think there’s something in it anyway. The popular Western belief that Russian opera’s only thematic interest is large-scale Russian history and identity is understandable, because a lot of the works we see here are historical pageants and/or feature tons of identifiably Russian folk material, and there are plenty of historical reasons for that. We just don’t see a lot of productions of Serov’s Judith or Dargomyzhsky’s The Stone Guest in these parts. (I guess The Queen of Spades is something of an exception.)
But Prince Igor isn’t one of those non-nationalist operas! It’s totally, absolutely, completely about Russian history, particularly Russian imperialism. It’s the sabre-rattlingest of all, even! Medieval hero Igor
goes forth attempts to go forth and conquer the sexy, emasculating East, just like Russia was doing throughout the nineteenth century. You can’t get much more obvious than that. That’s why I think Tcherniakov’s move away from this is interesting. We see additions of nationalist narratives to stagings all the time—Herheim is an equal opportunity interpolator in this department, he does it to the West as much as the East—but taking them out strikes me as pretty unusual.*
I think it took a Russian to do this, and given the political distastefulness of the opera’s imperial baggage today—this stuff is going on now, still—as well as the over the top nature of the Orientalism given to the Polovetsians, it’s a brilliant move. (You can read Richard Taruskin on this problem, too. I’d be interested to know what he thinks of this staging.) In a broader sense, it gives a symbolic space to a repertory whose drama is usually interpreted in solely external terms, and that’s novel in its own right. Instead of being about imperialism, this production is essentially about male egos. Igor is going off to fight something within himself, and the parallel with Galitsky is clear.
Anyway, back to the larger picture. While I found plenty to chew over in this staging, I have to admit that it was a little less viscerally thrilling than I had hoped for. I had once again been looking for the wrong thing, because Tcherniakov isn’t that kind of director. He’s not flamboyant, and some of this looks like it could be the best work of one Otto Schenkniakov (and a few moments like the not-best work—there’s some stock gesture that looks pretty unfinished). I sometimes wished Tcherniakov had taken a firmer hand with the storytelling. Most of the static moments are inherent in the fragmentary nature of the opera. The scenes don’t quite link up, there’s not too much in the way of ensembles. And that’s still there.
That being said, most of the performances were really good: detailed and integrated in the production’s concept, though the voices weren’t all ideal. Ildar Abdrazakhov is a bit light-voiced for Igor, but his zonked-out monologue in Act 3 has real stature. My favorite of the cast might have been Oksana Dyka, who acted the role of Igor’s wife Yaroslavna with regal presence, sorrow, and, in the end desperation. Her voice is cool, steely, and doesn’t have much variety of tonal color (she struggled a bit in the floaty bits at the beginning of Act 3), but she is very very loud. As Galitsky, Mikhail Petrenko played the villain with enthusiasm, though he also was sometimes underpowered. As Konchakovna, Anita Rachvelishvili sounded dark and leaned into all that snake-charmer type stuff, though playing the figment of someone else’s imagination was not, in this case, the most interesting assignment for her. As Vladimir, Sergey Semishkur sounded excellent and forceful at the top of his voice but gargled lower down. As Khan Konchak, Stefan Kocan was scratchy.
The Met chorus got a lot of the hardest work and sounded terrific. I must admit, however, that I was a little disappointed in Pavel Smelkov’s conducting, and wished I had seen Gianandrea Noseda, who did the premiere. The orchestra was limp at times, and I missed a variety of colors. (I missed Noseda, and missed my original acoustically preferable seat, due to an unfortunate snafu with the New Jersey Transit the other week in which I missed my original date for this performance. For the record, I don’t recommend a few hours spent on a train platform in Metuchen as an acceptable alternative to Prince Igor.)
Do go see this one if you can. It’s on through March 8, with an HD broadcast on March 1.
*I have seen a production of Boris that was set in a modern generic Eastern Bloc state, which worked well—and was a particulalry apt choice for the place where I saw it, former Eastern Bloc city Dresden.
More photos (all copyright Cory Weaver/Met)