On A High Note



A Review of the Metropolitan Opera’s Prince Igor

On Saturday March 1st, I rushed over to the movie theater in Kenmore Square to see Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor broadcasted by the Metropolitan Opera. As the curtain rose, the opera began with a projection of the quote “to unleash a war is the surest way to escape oneself” and this quote set the stage nicely for Dimitri Tcherniakov’s dreamlike interpretation of the Russian opera.

Prince Igor was Borodin’s only opera, and left unfinished when the composer suddenly died in 1887. Borodin was notably a doctor, chemist, and women’s rights activist in addition to being a Romantic composer. But this 4-hour opera was no easy undertaking for Borodin, who worked on Prince Igor for 18 years before his death.

The opera is a retelling of an anonymous 12th century Russian epic poem, and the plot is focused on the ancient Prince Igor of the city Putivl as he gathers his army for a war against the Polovtsians. However, Prince Igor’s troops are defeated, and he and his son Vladimir are taken captive. Matters become further complicated with a star-crossed love affair as Igor’s son Vladimir falls in love with the daughter of Khan Konchak, the ruler of the Polovtsians. However, rather than use this love affair as an opportunity for a truce, Igor vows to continue the fight against the Polovtsian and escapes captivity. Prince Igor then returns to his city, which is left in ruins, but his subjects still hail him upon his return.

This particular adaptation last Saturday was a new production at the Metropolitan Opera. It has become common in the opera world for directors to attempt to modernize operas by adapting them in ways that would appeal to contemporary audiences, and the style of new productions can range from highly simplistic and abstract to incredibly shocking and anachronistic. But director Dimitri Tcherniakov outdid himself. Not only did this new production leave no small detail untouched, but it also brought and new life and understanding to this plot through the director and conductor’s reinterpretation of this musical text.

During his interview with Eric Owens, director Tcherniakov mentioned that the stakes were high for him when tackling this production because he had grown up in Russia knowing the tale of Prince Igor. His intentions were to create a production that would be somewhat of a surprise to anyone who knew the piece well, but mostly, for those who weren’t familiar with the opera, Tcherniakov wanted Igor to be easy to follow.

Using vivid black-and-white silent-film segments, 12500 fake poppies, and an overall timeless set which could have been indicative of several different centuries, Tcherniakov uses the staging and intricacies in order to advance the plot in ways that would not have been possible with a traditional set. The black and white film provided an emotional intimacy with the characters that was incredibly striking, and the interpretation of the set brought the audience closer to Igor’s mind as he struggled mentally throughout the opera. The theatricality of this production also seemed to succeed in bringing out the character of Borodin’s music, for the use of the emotions, blocking, and dancing brought the audience closer to the music by successfully animating the score.

Another unique element in this production is the reinterpretation of the music. Tchnerniakov along with the conductor Ildar Abdrazakov made this opera uniquely their own by reordering scenes, tweaking the plot, and adding musical numbers from a different score. Although it may seem as though changing the score would be an opera sacrilege, this particular opera provides certain liberties since it was left unfinished by Borodin.

But the main thing that struck me about this production was the outstanding cast. Russian singer Ildar Abdrazakov led the production impressively well. In one of his interviews he also mentioned apprehensions about performing in this opera since he felt great responsibility as a Russian singer in a Russian opera. However, Abdrazakov proved to be a solid actor with a wide emotional range and capacity, and had a wonderfully pleasing tone, which was firm but not overwhelming.

Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka (in her Met debut) also embarked on her role of Yaroslavna masterfully from the moment she took the stage. Her voice was clear and piercing as she tackled all of her high notes. And she was countered nicely by Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili as Konchakovna with her luxuriously deep voice and sensual physicality.

And finally, Russian tenor Sergey Semishkur (also in his Met debut) provided a sincere interpretation of Vladimir, successfully capturing the passion of his character.

Although I have never had a particular inclination towards Russian opera, I found this production to be both provocative and engaging. The beauty of Borodin’s music and the wonderful musical interpretations by the singers, conductor, and director all struck me as exceptional. Although the opera was admittedly strange at parts, part of enjoying this production was accepting its whimsical nature. And the reinterpretation kept this opera fresh. However, the issue of the length would definitely be a factor in my recommendation of this opera, because viewing it in totality was definitely a commitment. However, even though the opera had its slow moments, I was thankful for its cohesiveness and energy.

Christina Bianco ’17 (christinabianco@college) found Prince Igor a welcome break from studying for her Economics 10b midterm.