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Friday, February 7, 2014

Opera Review: The Opera Formerly Known as Prince

The Metropolitan Opera unveils Dmitri Tcherniakov's Prince Igor.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Ildar Abdrazakov wanders through the poppies in the title role of Prince Igor.
Photo by Cory Weaver © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera.
At the Metropolitan Opera, the 2013-14 season has been one of fearless experimentation. The traditional favorites by Wagner and Verdi have been pushed aside for the welcome return of Russian opera to the big New York stage. The latest of those experiments, and one of this season's most eagerly anticipated new productions was unveiled on Thursday night: Alexander Borodin's problematic opera Prince Igor. This new staging by Dmitri Tcherniakov marks the first Met performance of the score since 1917, and the first to be sung in Russian. Although traditional in some respects, the director chose to make this unfinished, pageant-like opera a commentary on the foolishness of militarism and its horrific aftermath.

Borodin was a chemistry professor who composed in his spare time. As a result, he died leaving Prince Igor  unfinished, despite 18 years of sporadic effort on his only opera. Most performing versions incorporate the material finished by the composer's friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov. (Glazunov was Rimsky's pupil and a fair composer in his own right.) This new production uses previously unheard material by the composer and cuts some of the "standard" performing options (including Glazunov's overture) in favor of long-lost material from Borodin's sketches and archives. (The score was prepared by conductor Gianandrea Noseda, Mr. Tcherniakov and a team of Russian musicologists. They left the famous Polovtsian Dances intact.) The result: a leaner (if still lengthy) show that makes a strong, if sometimes incoherent dramatic impact.


When the curtain rises, Mr. Tcherniakov's production is traditional, although the costumes (by Elena Zaitseva) evoke the 19th-century warfare of Borodin's time. The Prologue is set in a vast church space that makes use of the impressive depth of the Met stage and the skills of the Met's redoubtable orchestra and chorus. The musicians bit cleanly into the score, urged in a propulsive, dramatic way by Mr. Noseda. In fact the standard of musical execution was strong throughout. Things go awry for both protagonist and opera as the action moves to the battlefield. Screened black and white projections depict the slaughter of Igor's army and the title character's subsequent hospitalization. And that's when things get weird.

Instead of the enemy's camp, Igor (Ildar Abdrazakov) now wanders through a vast field of poppies, encountering ghostly versions of the opera's other characters who may or may not be dramatically present. This choice seemed to confuse a lot of the actors, including Mr.  Abdrazakov, the imposing Russian bass whose build, voice and temperament are otherwise perfectly suited to the opera's title role. Mr. Abdrazakov did his best with the Act I aria and scenes, but remained handcuffed to the director's vision throughout this act. He was better in Act III, when Igor, having returned to the now-destroyed city of Putyil, unleashes a grim and rarely heard monologue that finally gives his character some depth.

Stefan Kocán delivered a sturdy, slightly wooly performance, making this most of Khan Konchak's one aria. However, the Khan's friendly overtures to Igor seemed bizarre in this new dramatic context. The opera's sub-plot, an illicit romance between Igor's son Vladimir (the reedy-voiced tenor Sergey Semishkur, also making his debut) and the Khan's daughter (mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili) became an afterthought, with bits of their numbers together acted out in the poppy fields and inserted into the third act as one of Igor's post-traumatic hallucinations. Their sudden appearance in the middle of Act III (in the rubble of what's left of Putyvl) was simply confusing, although Ms. Rachvelishvili's gripping stage presence and rich mezzo can overcome almost any directorial conceit.

The best part of this very long act was the ballet. The Polovstian Dances were played with power and enthusiasm by the Met Orchestra, who sounded happy to blast through the savage "Oriental" rhythms and the lush hit tune, better known to American listeners as the standard "Stranger in Paradise." Onstage, the dancers cavorted and capered through the vast field of fake flowers. Mr. Abdrazakov wandered through them like a basso Parsifal, looking just as bemused as the foolish title character of that Wagner opera. The chorus, clad in black and installed in the first two boxes on the Parterre and Grand Tier levels of the auditorium struck a perfect balance of sound with the orchestra. The result: a visual and sonic picture of unparalleled beauty.

In deciding to reverse the order of Acts One and Two, Mr. Tcherniakov effectively destroyed the dramatic center of the action back in Igor's hometown: when Igor's wife Yaroslavna finds out that the battle is lost and her husband is captive. However, not even this error could deter soprano Oksana Dyka from delivering one of the finest debut performances heard at the Met in some time. Combining a ringing top with dramatic power and poise, she made the Yaroslavna the dramatic focus of the second half of the opera. Her Act II aria was beautifully sung with impressive, almost showy high notes at its end. Her following confrontation in Act II with her thuggish brother Galitsky (Mikhail Petrenko) was simply terrific.

Mr. Petrenko benefited more than most from this revision of the score, delivering one of the best performances of the night. His villainous character has good deal more to do, with a carousing scene added and an effective delivery of his blow-by-blow depiction of his ambition to rule Putyvl, raid the treasury and drink himself stupid. (This style of government doesn't work out.) He made the most of the role, singing with a fine high bass and relishing his thoroughly unsympathetic character. He was flanked by tenor Andrey Popov and beloved veteran bass Vladimir Ognovenko as a pair of itinerant gudok players whose drunken support of Galitsky and quick switch back to Igor's side provided the evening's only moment of comic relief.

The revised score combines elements of Acts III and IV, creating a revised and expanded third act to end the evening. Ms. Dyka delivered a moving performance of Yaroslavna's Lament, made more poignant as it was sung in the rubble of the ruined church. Fires burned in oil drums and bathtubs as the once-proud townspeople huddled for warmth or bathed themselves under a persistent leak in the church roof. The most compelling image: a huge iron girder that hung suspended in the acting space, used as a giant church bell that thundered through the Met auditorium, rolling its death knell even as it announced Igor's return from captivity. In his final monologue (rebuilt and re-orchestrated for this performance from the composer's original sketch) Mr. Abdrazakov offered little in the way of redemption or hope. Rolling up his sleeves, he simply led the effort to clear the wreckage from the stage as the orchestra quietly played its last bars. This final tableau bemused the audience, but was the most powerful moment of the show.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.