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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Prince Igor

Ildar Abdrazakov takes on a barbarian horde in this Russian epic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Beautiful dreamer: Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov sings the title role in Prince Igor.
Photo by Micaela Rossato © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
Star Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov is the principal attraction in the Met's new production of Prince Igor. This new production by director Dmitri Tcherniakov is the most ambitious offering in the second half of the 2013-14 opera season.

Prince Igor is a broad-shouldered, burly epic: the story of a warrior prince from old Kievan Russia (the title character) and his ill-fated military campaign against the barbarian forces of Khan Konchak in the year 1185. The opera bursts at the seams with Aleksandr Borodin's epic, instantly recognizable musical style. Borodin was a member of the "Mighty Handful" of Russian composers, a brilliant group that also included Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. But like all the composers in this little group, he had another job, as one of Russia's most important research chemists.

When not blowing up his chemistry set, Borodin wrote a small but important catalogue of works, incorporating traditional Russian folk music with a mid-Romantic style and a genuine gift for melody. Prince Igor occupied the composer for eight years on and off, with work on it being interrupted by the composer's untimely death in 1887. It was up to his fellow "Handful" member Rimsky-Korsakov wrestle the opera into shape for its premiere in 1890. His protege composer Aleksandr Glazunov to was tasked with completing a performable third act.

 Prince Igor is famous for just five minutes of ballet music. That piece of music is the Act II ballet the "Polovtsian Dances," specifically the ""Gliding Dance of the Maidens." In 1953, the "Gliding Dance" became "Stranger in Paradise" in the Broadway show Kismet., which had a whole score based on Borodin's music. The tune later became the signature song of crooner Tony Bennett.

Mr. Tcherniakov's staging (a co-production with Die Nederlandse Opera) reimagines the opera as a psychological journey into the mind of its title character, set against the sweeping saga of the founding of Russia itself. Working with conductor Gianandrea Noseda, Tcherniakov has created a new version of the opera using newly-discovered music by Borodin combined with three new orchestrations by composer Aleksandr Smelkov. This is a Prince Igor for a new millennium.

Prince Igor opens Feb. 6, 2014.A Live in HD performance is scheduled for March 1.

Recording Recommendations: 
The collapse of the Soviet satellite states and following fall of Communism in Russia proved to be godsends for aficionados of operas from that country. These two rival recordings (released just three years apart) give excellent account of the score of Prince Igor.

Sofia Festival Orchestra and National Opera Chorus cond. Emil Tchakarov. (Sony, 1990 reissued 2011 on Brilliant Classics)
Prince Igor: Boris Martinovich
Vladimir: Kaludi Kaludov
Yaroslavna: Stefka Evstatieva
Khan Konchak: Nicolai Ghiaurov
Konkchakovna: Alexandrina Milcheva-Nonova

Emil Tchakarov leads a Bulgarian recording with gorgeous orchestral playing and fine digital sound. The cast isn't starry, but Bulgaria's most famous operatic export Nicolai Ghiaurov can be heard as Khan Konchak. This was originally issued as part of Sony's The Russian Opera series (in a deluxe white box with a full libretto. It is now available on the budget Brilliant Classics imprint.

Kirov Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. Valery Gergiev (Philips (now Decca) 1993)
Prince Igor: Mikhail Kit
Yaroslavna: Galina Gorchakova
Vladimir: Gegam Gregorian
Khan Konchak: Bulat Minjelkiev
Konchakovna: Olga Borodina

The Philips recording (which has been print when that label was absorbed into Decca, but will soon be back in the catalogue) was part of the series that established the Kirov Opera (now the Mariinsky) as a force in the recording and presentation of Russian operas in the digital age. Gergiev conducts a muscular performance with an all-star cast with Galina Gorchakova and the appropriately-named Olga Borodina in the two female leads.
Tickets for Prince Igor are available at MetOperaFamily.Org, by calling (212) 362-6000, or at the box office starting August 11.

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