In a winter dominated by headlines from the Olympics in Russia and nonstop snowstorms in New York, the Metropolitan Opera is offering its own tribute to Russian heritage and a refuge from the weather with a lavish and captivating new production of Borodin's Prince Igor, the Met's first staging of the composer's only opera in nearly 100 years.
And by "new" production, I mean wholesale revision. The Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov and the Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda, have turned this grand saga of war and redemption in 12th-century Russia upside-down, juggling acts, cutting some passages and adding some music from other Borodin works. The end result is a thoroughly satisfying evening of operatic theater that is as much a character study as epic folk tale.
It is a radical vision of Prince Igor that audiences around the world will be able to judge for themselves when the Met offers it as part of its Live in HD series on March 1.
The real winner is Borodin's music. Choruses are showcased in Prince Igor, and the Met Opera chorus is splendid, especially in the famous Polovtsian Dances, popularly known as the song "Stranger in Paradise" from the Broadway musical Kismet. And under Noseda's energetic baton, the Met Orchestra renders the orchestral passages magnificently.
A first-rate cast, largely Russian, completes the success. The bass Ildar Abdrazakov sings the title role with a brooding melancholy that is ultimately full of hope. The Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka, making her Met debut, sings his wife Yaroslavna with intensity. The Russian tenor Sergey Semishkur, also in a promising Met debut, sings their son Vladimir and the Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili is a vivacious Konchakovna, daughter of Khan, Igor's enemy.
While Borodin is listed as the composer of Prince Igor, he had a lot of help from friends finishing it. A chemist by profession, Borodin was a weekend musician, composing as a hobby when he could find the time. He worked on Prince Igor for 18 years and it was still unfinished when he died of a heart attack at age 53. His good friend Rimsky-Korsakov, assisted by Alexander Glazunov, took his notes, some loose pages of music, and stitched it together into a finished opera that is beloved by Russian audiences but not performed a lot elsewhere.
Tchneriakov and Noseda threw all that out the window and cobbled their new version that rearranges some scenes, adds new music, excises some arias, and in the process switches the focus to the uncertainty that plagues the prince as he leads his army into annihilation.
Before a note is played, a legend appears on a screen covering the proscenium that says: "To unleash a war is the surest way to escape from one's self." The traditional overture has been cut, and the Prologue plunges into Igor mustering the army of Putivl, the city-state he rules, for an attack on the Polovtsians, a band of Central Asian nomads led by Khan Konchak.
A sudden solar eclipse is taken as a sign from heaven and everyone tries to dissuade Igor from his military adventure. But Igor is firm, especially when the sun reappears, and the army, dressed like old Soviet Red Army soldiers lining up for a May Day parade, march off to war.
By the start of Act 1, the battle has already been lost and Igor is prisoner of Khan. Tcherniakov uses the screen as a mixed media vehicle, interspersing filmed close-ups of dying soldiers and a wounded Igor with the prince lying on a stage covered with bright red flowers, and in his delirium seeing his wife Yaroslavna, his son Vladimir, the Khan's daughter Konchakovna, and the Khan himself offering him an alliance.
Meanwhile, back in Putivl, Igor's brother-in-law Galitsky -- a sort of 12th-century Wolf of Wall Street, except he swigs vodka rather than pop Quaaludes and abducts village women rather than hire hookers -- is planning to usurp Igor's place in his absence.
By the end, Igor escapes and returns to a Putivl that has been sacked by Khan's forces. Tcherniakov and Noseda have borrowed "The River Don Floods," composed by Borodin for another work, to bring down the curtain as Igor and his subjects start to rebuild the city-state.