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

Friday, February 07, 2014 - 01:24 PM

A scene from Act I of Borodin's 'Prince Igor' with Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor Svyatoslavich A scene from Act I of Borodin's 'Prince Igor' with Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor Svyatoslavich (Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera)
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.

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Comments [11]

Les from Miami, Florida

If I'm permitted an aside, Mr. Lane's personal experience with Giorgio Polacco and the telling of how his life ended is both heartbreaking and sickening. I had no knowledge whatsoever about that. In a more enlightened world, all those performing artists who bring all of us such life-long pleasure and joy should all be able to live our their lives in dignity and relative prosperity. In an ideal world, there should be a Verdi house for retired musicians in every country and for instrumentalists, too. I apologize for going off-topic.

Mar. 04 2014 06:57 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

GIORGIO POLACCO had indeed been a major maestro talent at the MET OPERA in the so-called GOLDEN AGE OF OPERA. LES mentioned that POLACCO conducted Caruso's Samson performances. His Dalilah was Margarete Matzenauer whom Frieda Hempel, also a star in that universe who prepared me for my Ten Language Solo Debut in the main hall of Carnegie Hall, asked to continue my vocal studies. Hempel, terminally ill with cancer returned to Germany where she died. Germany declared it a day in her remembrance and stores and theaters were closed for that day.

Mar. 02 2014 06:37 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Les from Miami. Florida mentioned the maestro Giorgio Polacco who conducted the MET OPERA's first performance of PRINCE IGOR. I studied with him and he conducted me in performance as Calaf [Turandot]. At that time he was semi-retired and his finances were slim. He had made history as the first conductor of the RING in Russia. How poorly are treated many in the classical world when their active careers end. Verdi so well understood that problem and his solution was a home funded to accommodate musicians and singers whose careers as performers had ended.

Mar. 02 2014 06:13 PM
Laura Evans from Oldsmar, Florida


I absorbed, what I have denied for years, my sons journey
into his war. His public war (Iraq) and his private war that he is still living in.
And I see what is missing. It is a will to pick something up and start building his life again.

Mar. 02 2014 07:56 AM
Nancy from New York

I found the plot so confusing and full of holes and mistakes, that the glorious voices and wonderful scenic design could n't make up for them.

In the entr'acte, the singers playing Skula and Eroshka, say that Tcherniakov has portrayed them as military men. Yet, they sing extensively about playing music in the last act. Igor wife has a glorious voice but is so stiff and unconvincing

Opera is grand theatre, grand music, a compelling and acting to carry it all through. This Prince Igor's plot was not goof and the female parts unharmoniously acted.

Mar. 01 2014 08:31 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

What a mighty paeon to civilizations this music with its chorus and soloists and orchestra performing SO MAGNIFICENTLY as at this MET OPERA performance. An appropriate signature opera by BORODIN.
KUDOS to ALL CONCERNED. The performance, today Saturday March 1st, has just ended to well-deserved applause. PRINCE IGOR has that epic quality that distinguishes drawing room simplistic soap opera plots from the major masterpieces that deal with emotionally-complicated political power plays. Wagner, Verdi and Moussorgsky dealt so affirmatively with political ramifications. It is about time that masterpieces like Prince Igor and Die Frau ohne Schatten that the MET OPERA is performing this season be given their rightful share with the more popular chestnuts in the repertoire of opera companies. Given the actual production values with confirmed financial backing, the appropriate singers will appear when those conditions are understood to be permanent and not just fads. I am a Wagnerian romantischer heldentenor. I will sing the four song cycles that are most often performed in their orchestral garb:the complete Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder," the complete Mahler's "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen," the tenor's music in Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" and Waldemar's music in Schoenberg's "Gurre-Lieder" at the New Life Expo at the Hotel Pennsylvania in NYC on Saturday March 22nd at 6 PM in the Gold Room on the second floor. I have sung four three-hour-long solo concerts, the last two ALL-WAGNER concerts, in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall including programming the Wagner and the first named Mahler song cycle. One may hear my singing LIVE from the main hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium of CARNEGIE HALL, from my four three-hour-long solo concerts by downloading, FREE, 37 out of the nearly 100 selections that I have sung there by going to RECORDED SELECTIONS on my websites www.WagnerOpera.com, www.ShakespeareOpera.com and www.RichardWagnerMusicDramaInstitute.com Roles represented from live performances are Otello, Siegfried, Goetterdaemmerung Siegfried, Florestan, Tristan, Parsifal, Siegmund, Walther von Stolzing, Rienzi, Lohengrin,Orfeo, Federico and, in oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus.

Mar. 01 2014 04:55 PM
Ken Berv from Stamford, CT

As a Met subscriber, and a rather sophisticated, life long (69 and counting) attendee of very fine concerts and operas, I am increasingly frustrated by these fey “auteur” directors ignorant of, or worse, regardless of STYLE and CUSTOM and PERIOD, perverting the composer’s intentions by putting their ego far above ART, which seems not to be a part of their “talents.” We lasted, mistakenly, through ACT II. We did see the Marinsky production in 1998 at the Met, described by Tomassini of the NYX as “bland and traditional.” Magnificient and beautiful might be bland to this fan of the bizarre and inchoate. The hallucinogenic spectacle of the Polovetsian Dances contrasted obscenely with the “survivors of Dachau” dance this February. I am still trying to puzzle the relevance of the opening quote displayed on the screen, something like, “If you have internal distress, start a war.” How this applies to Igor, whose country was invaded by the Mongolian hordes, or to his enemy, whose megalomania and desire for empire motivated the attacks, I have no clue. This disconnect applies equally to the haphazard melange of styles, and inconsistence in this production. As usual, the Met orchestra and singers were fabulous. What professionals they are to produce such sonic beauty amidst such travesty! I wish I had an address to send the NYX critic a copy of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” Or perhaps he is just so sated and jaded anything “different” must be “fabulous.”

Feb. 20 2014 06:58 PM
Marion from New York

Saw Friday night's performance. Thought the concept was clear and coherent. You got what you needed to know about Igor from the prologue/first act. At over four hours, the cut to the chase cinematography worked to show us what we needed to know about how the war went. It was somewhat disconcerting and you had to wonder what was "real" and what wasn't. But that works. The harem pants have become a cliche and while I missed them at first, the director made a wise choice in redefining the Polvastian dancers. The whole thing now reads as the fantasy of a wounded warrior. Given that some of it is fantasy -- Igor's wife visiting him, it makes sense that all of it may be including the friendly, seductive Khan, the dancers who spring up from the poppies, and even the Khan's daughter. It makes more sense to imagine that the son's fate was death on the battlefield. He does not return with his father. The anti-war sentiment must ring especially true to modern day Russians. It was powerful. Brilliant production.

Feb. 16 2014 04:03 PM
beachsiggy from NYC

I saw the dress rehearsal, since it is unlikely NJ Transit will hold the last train for me if I go to a regular evening performance. The music is great, the singing is wonderful (principals and chorus), the conductor is superb, the orchestra at their best. The production makes little sense, and is obviously designed for the HD broadcast, since you can't see a lot of what's going on if you're in the house, at least if you're sitting on the Orchestra level. Those weird poppies (and later, piles of rubble)get in the way of a lot of things, and spoil the dance while they're at it. Which is a modern dance, and in no way fits the subject matter. There's no apparent time period to the piece, the Prince rides off to war on (virtual)horseback, yet the army has automatic pistols and many in the later acts wear more modern clothing. At the last scene, they are singing about going back to Russia, but from the set it appears they already are IN Russia, so it is very confusing. A very mixed bag, and I really missed some of the excerpted music, but if it were in there, we would have been at it all evening as well as all day.

Feb. 10 2014 12:05 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

Listening to the Opening Night broadcast, I'd like to provide an aide of sorts to those who like to listen while reading the orchestra or vocal score. The Overture isn't played at all. It was composed by Glazunov and, for that reason, was omitted. This production starts with the Prologue, which is followed by Act II. Act I. is omitted entirely, unless there is some music extracted from it and interpolated at a later time. Act III is also subject to the editorial process of Maestro Noseda and the director. Act IV begins as the traditional score does, but is also rather heavily edited. I agree with Mr. Stears' revealing review, especially his concluding sentence. Oh, how I wish that this gem of an opera had been presented without concept for the benefit of all those who saw the opening and, I hope, will see it in its future performances, since the soloists, chorus and orchestra sound as if they'd been performing it all of their lives and the conducting, I thought, to the manor born. "Prince Igor", an opera more talked about than seen in the Western Hemisphere, hasn't been staged since the days of Toscanini's singers, Pasquale Amato (Jack Rance in "La Fanciulla del West") and Adamo Didur, Toscanini's "Boris Godounoff" and conductor Giorgio Polacco, Caruso's conductor for "Samson et Dalila". For the benefit of those who are lucky enough to see it, I only wish it were "played straight".

Feb. 08 2014 05:37 AM
tony from new haven,ct

I am looking forward to seeing the new production at the met in march..

Feb. 07 2014 03:54 PM

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