Review: Met Tries Conceptual Approach in Rich, Confounding Prince Igor

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Is the Metropolitan Opera the right place for an often-brilliant but fragmentary epic?

The question needed to be asked at the Thursday opening of Borodin's alluring, shambling Prince Igor, which was left unfinished by the composer and has generally been heard either excerpted (the flashy Polovtsian Dances, heard on Friday during the Olympics Opening Ceremony) appropriated (the Broadway musical Kismet) or patched up by well-meaning midwives (Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov). 

However, a revisionist spirit took hold of the Met’s new production with director/designer Dmitri Tcherniakov and conductor Gianandrea Noseda determined to present the opera pretty much as the composer left it, including orchestrations by Rimsky and Glazunov but not the music that they composed to patch the opera’s many holes. The results were visually imaginative with a bold use of cinema and musically gratifying in a sort of anti-Valery Gergiev way. But for all of the opera’s four-hour length, essential narrative elements simply weren’t there, leaving the audience (including some industry professionals in it) befuddled.

After a prologue that has the medieval-era Prince Igor setting out on an ill-fated military campaign (despite the bad omen of a solar eclipse), the story skips forward, way forward, to after his defeat. Igor lies on a battlefield of red poppies (World War I references were clearly intentional) having visions of women and corpses, aided by black and white film interludes, but with music that felt like a simple, less-than-linear ballad opera with little sense of narrative. It assumed that we knew enough about Igor to be interested in his inner journey. Suddenly, you were in the middle of the story without character expositions.

The rest of the production was fairly traditional with Igor’s village besieged, sacked and resurrected. Much of the music was invitingly turbulent. But other character exchanges felt so formal as to be stilted. Some Borodin-authored music was said to be heard for the first time – and is worth inclusion. But this was not a exhumation on the level of the Mozart Requiem. Borodin was hardly a figure of Mozartean stature, and Prince Igor wasn’t really cut short by the composer’s death (he abandoned the opera for years at a time). Also, imposing a clean narrative onto the fragmentary opera is hardly impossible (as shown by the cheesy but surprisingly watchable 1969 film version by Roman Tikhomirov).

A scene from Act III of Borodin's "Prince Igor" with Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor Svyatoslavich (Corey Weaver)

That said, Tcherniakov made an important debut. Though he struck out in too many directions for the production’s own good, his choices were invariably thoughtful and deeply felt, with effective symbolic use of fire, water and other elements. In the orchestra pit, Noseda steered away from the usual sweaty, visceral manner that one is used to in Russian opera, going for something with more sensual surfaces and more inner poetry.

The cast was certainly able, with good-guy Igor sung by sonorous Ildar Abdrazakov with the right kind of inner torment and dissolute Prince Galitsky sung by Mikhail Petrenko with a thiner, wiry, more dastardly voice. Fine tenor singing was heard from Sergey Semishkur (Igor’s son Vladimir). As Igor’s wife Yaroslavna, Oksana Dyka used the metallic edge of her soprano with an appropriately regal, high-rhetorical effect. On the enemy side, Stefan Kocan (Khan Konchak) and Anita Rachvelishvili (his daughter) were appropriately imposing. Musically, it was all there – even if the opera itself was not.