I’m new to Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin, which isn’t a big surprise since it hasn’t been at the Met for 97 years. I quite like the music, it’s arresting and sweeping stuff. And I find the story – of a 12th Century Slavic prince who faces great adversity in war with Turkic Polovtsians – quite compelling. I have my doubts, however, about the uneven new Metropolitan production directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov.
My first issue is with setting the action in a milieu that vaguely resembles late 19th Century Russia. I’d rather they set it in outer space, than this. I think it’s an incredibly wishy-washy choice, revealing exactly nothing about either medieval Slavs, or the piece’s more universal ramifications.
He’s also placed what is usually the opera’s second act immediately after a prologue, making it the first act. Tcherniakov has some foundation for switching the acts: Borodin left Prince Igor unfinished and very disorganized at the time of his death. His colleague Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov decided to, in his own words, “orchestrate, finish composing, and systematize all the rest that had been left unfinished and unorchestrated by Borodin.” Rimsky-Korsakov was the one who made the decision to order the acts the way they have been traditionally performed.
However, some notes in Borodin’s own hand have come to light, suggesting that his original intention was to order the acts in the way Tcherniakov has. I think, though, that Rimsky-Korsakov (who had written several operas of his own by the time he took on Prince Igor) had the right idea. The plot events of the opera are explained much more clearly in the (traditional) Act I than they are in the more atmospheric (traditional) Act II. Reversing them, while perhaps “truer” to Borodin’s intent, seriously confuses the storytelling
Beyond that, Tcherniakov sets this “new” first act, after Igor suffers a major military setback, in an enormous field of poppies. It’s visually stunning, but makes the already messy state of the opera’s story even more opaque.
All that said, musically speaking this is a truly delicious account of Prince Igor, largely thanks to conductor Gianandrea Noseda. The famous “Polovtsian Dances” – which gave us the melody for the pop song “Stranger In Paradise” – are truly electrifying here, with sensuous choreography by Itzik Galili. Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka, as Igor’s long-suffering wife Yaroslavna, stands out among a uniformly strong, mostly Eastern European cast.
I still don’t feel that I have properly seen this opera. I’ve certainly heard it, though, and it sounds just tremendous!
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