Alexander Borodin's "Prince Igor," last heard at the Met in 1917, made a grand return after nearly 100 years as an international Live in HD cinema feature. "Prince Igor" was Borodin's only operatic composition and one he worked on for nearly two decades, but the opera was still incomplete and incohesive upon his death. Two of Russia's most illustrious composers of the time, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov, strove to work Borodin's operatic fragments into a unified and complete form. Their efforts were moderately successful, and "Prince Igor" lived on in Russian, but did not maintain the same success abroad; however, director Dmitri Tcherniakov's bold reconstruction of Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Glazunov's patchwork-opera may bring "Prince Igor" back into the public eye. By reassembling, interpolating, and resetting segments of the opera, Tcherniakov has succeeded not only in smoothing out the plot's dramatic arc, but in giving the characters the potential for development.
Most of the opera's characters are introduced in the sombre Prologue. Despite the foreboding omens, Prince Igor decides to lead his troops to battle against the Polovtsians. Through the transition to Act I, the audience followed the battle via black-and-white projections. The orchestra's accompanying dreamlike melodies were a harrowing juxtaposition to the footage of the nervous Russian troops and the ensuing carnage. As the bloody images faded, Igor, sung by Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov, awoke in a field of red poppies. Setting the entire Polovtsian act in an abstract dreamscape was a daring move on Tcherniakov's part, but the visual effect was stunning.
Khan Konchak's daughter, Konchakovna, was the first to traverse Prince Igor's hallucinatory dreamscape. Clad in white with flowing locks of black hair, Anita Rachvelishvili was a voluptuous Konchakovna both psychically and vocally. Her warm, throaty tone brought sensuality to her melismatic cavatina. Until Igor's son, Vladimir, (sung by tenor Sergey Semishkur) entered responding ardently to Konchakovna's song, Konchakovna seemed nothing more than an apparition wading through Igor's consciousness; soon, however, Igor himself became the lingering phantom and seemed to fade in and out of the perception of the field's other inhabitants.
Even in the prelude, Semishkur's bright tone radiated a yearning and love for life that defied the imminent peril of war. The quality of his penetrating tone and fervid vocal inflectionwas magnified in his Act I recitative and cavatina. The flip-side of Semishkur's hopeful tenor was Abdrazakov's despondent, but equally eloquent baritone. Though his voice was not quite as hefty as is typical for the role of Igor, Abdrazakov's handsome tone possessed a buoyancy that enlivened the score. In Igor's well-known monologue, Abdrazakov mustered a fittingly anguished sound and brought dimension to the defeated prince. Igor's steadfast interaction with his smooth-talking captor, Khan Konchak, sung by Slovakian bass Stefan Kocan, brought Igor's sense of dignity and patriotism to the forefront, despite his guilt.
Just as we begin to accept the poppy field as some sort of twisted reality, the scene and Igor's mental state devolve into blissful delirium during the sensuously choreographed Polovtsian dances. At the start of Act II, this dreamworld is left behind and the audience is plunged directly into the harsh reality in Putivl. Yaroslavna, sung by Oksana Dyka, longs for the return of her husband, Igor. During Igor's absence Yaroslavna's brother, Prince Galitsky, has become thirsty for power and plots a revolt. Mikhail Petrenko dominated the stage with his smarmy deportment and vocal ferocity in the role of Prince Galitsky. Comparatively, Oksana Dyka brought grace to the role of the Princess, though her portrayal was often clouded by extraneous gestures and contrived movements. There was strength and nobility in her steely tone, but her wide vibrato obscured intonation in her upper range and her phrasings lacked shape and direction.
Putivil is ultimately invaded and destroyed by the Polovtsians, but the opera ends on a surprisingly hopeful note. Igor escapes and returns to his wife and what remains of his city. Though he is plagued with guilt, he summons his strength and begins to rebuild the city with the help of his people. The chorus made a particularly mighty appearance in the third act, but they really were indispensable through the entirety of the opera. The clarity and power of the Met's immense chorus was without compare. The Met orchestra, under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda, was equally vital to this luscious and monumental work.
Though an opera's success hinges on many factors, Tcherniakov's painstaking re-imagination of "Prince Igor" provided the unity and fluidity necessary for the artists to really flourish in it. He has sorted through the inconsistencies and created vivid characters and a story that audiences can follow and be captivated by. Hopefully "Prince Igor" will find new success and a lasting place in international opera houses.