By Lynne Gray, PhD
Note: This can be viewed at www.metopera.org.
Sunday, May 3
Borodin’s Prince Igor ~ 3Hrs and 22Mins
Starring Oksana Dyka, Anita Rachvelishvili, and Ildar Abdrazakov, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. From March 1, 2014.
Dmitri Tcherniakov’s acclaimed new production of Borodin’s Russian epic is the Met’s first staging of this opera in nearly a century – and the first one sung in Russian. It stars the great Russian baritone, Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role of the tormented prince who leads his army against the Polovtsians (if you’re watching this week, you already saw him as Henry VIII in Anna Bolena). The stellar cast also includes Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka as his wife, Yaroslavna, Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili as Konchakova, Russian tenor Sergey Semishkur as Igor’s son, Vladimir, Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko as Prince Galitzky, and Slovakian bass Štefan Kocán as Khan Konchak. Gianandrea Noseda conducts the melodic and colorful score, which includes the celebrated – and familiar – Polovtsian Dances.
The “backstory” for this opera is as interesting as the opera itself. Alexander Borodin was an important doctor and chemist – as well as a composer. He considered himself to be a chemist first and a composer second – even though he is better known today for his composing, and even though he is credited with several important early advances in organic chemistry.
Borodin was born in 1833, the illegitimate son of a Georgian nobleman and a much younger, although already married woman. Because of that, the nobleman had Alexander registered as the son of one of his serfs – Porfiry Borodin. Fortunately for Alexander (and us!) his real father did liberate him from serfdom at the age of seven – and provide for him to be well-educated – as a doctor and scientist! Borodin did not even begin any formal training in composition until 1862, after he returned to Saint Petersburg to begin a professorship of chemistry at the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy. He married a pianist, Ekaterina Protopopova in 1863, but due his main career, and to his nearly constant ill health (he suffered from heart problems, as well as a bout with cholera), his compositional output was not large and he worked on Prince Igor on and off for the last 18 years of his life, dying in 1887 (at only 53) with the work unfinished.
Again fortunately, he belonged to an extremely influential group of five prominent young 19th-century Russian composers who worked together to create a distinct Russian classical music separate from the European tradition: Mily Balakirev (the leader), César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. They were often called The Five, or sometimes the Mighty Handful, and they worked together to produce a large body of uniquely Russian music. It was Borodin’s friends, Rimsky-Korsakov and the very young Alexander Glazunov who completed Prince Igor after his death.
The other remarkably interesting thing to learn about Borodin was that he was an extremely early supporter of women’s rights – especially to education. In fact, he founded the School of Medicine for Women in Saint Petersburg where he taught until 1885.
And finally – most of us will find some of the music in this opera very familiar because in 1953, Robert Wright and George Forest adapted Borodin’s music – from Prince Igor, In the Steppes of Central Asia and his string quartets and symphonies – to create the Broadway musical, Kismet, and its most famous song, “Stranger in Paradise.”
The opera begins in the year 1185 with a Prologue that takes place in the city of Putivl where Igor and his son, Vladimir (from his first wife) are about to set out with their army on a campaign against the Polovtsy and their Khans who have been attacking Russian lands. A sudden solar eclipse foreshadows an ominous outcome for the military campaign and Igor’s second wife, Yaroslavna, pleads with Igor not to go. He remains adamant, however, leaving her in the care of her brother, Prince Galitsky (a rather unsavory character who has already been exiled from his own home province). Two soldiers Skula and Yeroshka (mercenary intriguers and comic relief – much like Valzacchi and Annina in Rosenkavalier) desert Igor’s army feeling sure that Prince Galitsky will offer them work that is more to their liking.
The Met has re-ordered the acts from the usual Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov version to introduce the more familiar to our ears Polovtsian music earlier in the opera – so Act 1 here takes place in some dream-like delusional field of poppies on the Polovtsian steppes when Igor is recovering from his wounds. While characters literally pop in and out of the poppies (beautiful, but weird!), we learn that the battle has been lost, Igor’s army wiped out and Igor and Vladimir taken captive by the victorious Khan Konchak. Igor’s feelings of disgrace, guilt and torment are all complicated by Khan Konchak’s offers of hospitality and friendship, his beautiful daughter Konchakovna’s love for Vladimir, Ovlur’s (a Christian Polovtsian) constant urgings for him to escape, and his now impossible dreams of victory for Russia.
Meanwhile – back at the ranch – or rather, Putivl, Yaroslavna is having her own battles keeping the debauched Galitsky under control and the village women safe from him until Igor’s return. Warning bells sound, however, and her struggle becomes academic as Polovtsian Khan Gzak destroys Putivl and kills Galitsky.
The Met’s final act takes place in the sacked remains of Putivl. Igor is on his way home – alone except for Ovlur. Vladimir has chosen to marry Konchakovna and stay with the Polovtsians. Instead of the disgrace he expects, he finds Yaroslavna and the villagers overjoyed at their true Prince’s return and their liberation from Galitsky. In the redemptive and beautiful climax, Igor blames himself for all that has happened and urges his people to unite and rebuild their lives together.
1. The Royal family of Putivl: Abdrazakov and Dyka as Prince Igor and Yaroslavna at the Met. Credit… Beth Bergman / Met Opera, 2014.
2. Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor with his army in Borodin’s “Prince Igor” at the Met. Credit… Beth Bergman / Met Opera.
3. Sergey Semishkur as Vladimir, Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor, Oksana Dyka as Yaroslavna, and Anita Rachvelishvili as Konchakovna in Borodin’s “Prince Igor” at the Met. Credit… Beth Bergman / Met Opera.
4. Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor and Štefan Kocán as Khan Konchak in Borodin’s “Prince Igor” at the Met. Credit… Beth Bergman / Met Opera.
5. Oksana Dyka as Yaroslavna and Mikhail Petrenko as Prince Galitzky in Borodin’s “Prince Igor” at the Met. Credit… Beth Bergman / Met Opera.
6. Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor in Borodin’s “Prince Igor” at the Met. Credit… Beth Bergman / Met Opera.