New York City Theater
It’s not the Polovtsian Dances, familiar by their use in the Broadway musical “Kismet” (as “Stranger in Paradise”) that makes the Met’s new production of “Prince Igor” of such interest. Nor is it the décor: the grand, cold Soviet-style hall, the eye-popping, poppy-strewn field. Nor is it the current focus on everything good and bad about once-imperial Russia.
Rather, it’s combining a sometimes maligned work that hasn’t been seen at the Met in nearly 100 years with an emphasis not on spectacle but the human story of Prince Igor. The conflicted warrior husband and father, in this vigorous rendering of Alexander Borodin’s epic (at the Quick Center in HD next month), is an anti-hero, tempted to live in exile yet finally devoted enough to rally his people.
Sticking to that arc of the hubristic but equivocal protagonist is what makes director / designer Dmitri Tcherniakov’s renovation so striking. Conducted by Gianandrea Noseda in a style of heartfelt Russian exoticism, it features the Met’s brilliant chorus, each member finding his or her individual stories.
In the evening’s four-plus hours, there are, inevitably, heavy-going passages. But the over-all experience of this rarity is impressive.
Borodin, a chemist by trade, worked on “Prince Igor” for 18 years, never really finishing it. That task was left to Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov after Borodin’s death. The Met’s version returns to the source material, restores music, makes cuts and re-orders chronology.
Based on a heroic 12th-century poem, the opera begins with Igor and his son Vladimir gathering an army to launch a campaign against the Polovtsians, an Oriental people ruled by Khan Konchak. Scoffing at dire omens, citing “duty and honor,” Igor leaves his wife in the care of his brother, Prince Galitsky.
The campaign goes awry with both Igor and Vladimir taken prisoner. Igor is tormented by dreams of whether leaving home and wife was worth the cost of defeat and dead troops. Vladimir falls in love with the Khan’s daughter while the Khan tempts Igor with visions of unbridled sensuousness. He wants Igor to remain his “guest” and forgo future battles.
Meanwhile, back in the city-state, Igor’s wife is mocked and troubled by the ambitious Galitsky and his carousing followers. News comes of an impending invasion, heralded by the palace’s collapse which conveniently kills Galitsky. Not until the contrite Igor, having escaped prison, returns in shame but determined to spur the populace, does rebuilding begin.
Utilizing film inserts to bridge scenes, director Tcherniakov creates an atmosphere of blind patriotism and insubstantial hope. Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov is a conflicted Igor, his voice shading his imperial confidence with doubt, while another Russian bass, Mikhail Petrenko, is penetrating as the villainous Galitsky.
Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka, making her Met debut as Yaroslavna, Igor’s wife, uses her powerful voice and rigorous performance skills to create a woman of many layers, dutiful yet yielding, loyal yet independent. Perhaps taking a clue from Borodin’s well-known feminism, Dyka’s Yarolsavna is a strong and touching portrait of a woman not to be crossed.
What doesn’t work is the Polovtsian scene, which has bare-chested men and diaphanous-gowned women hopping about and waving their arms repetitiously for a good 10 minutes. There’s nothing seductive about Itzik Galili’s choreography, nor does the scene make clear what‘s real and what’s imagined.
But the music and orchestrations that drive the action are punctuated by passages filled with staccato pulses, indicating the characters’ anxieties. It’s a stirring score, haunting and lyrical, played with great élan by the Met orchestra. This is an opera about pride that does the Met proud.
--David A. Rosenberg
Feb. 23, 2010