Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Met - Prince Igor - 02/24/14

Composers: Alexander Borodin, Alexander Glazunov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda
Producer/Director: Dmitri Tcherniakov
Prince Igor: Ildar Abdrazakov
Yaroslavna: Oksana Dyka
Prince Galitsky: Mikhail Petrenko
Vladimir Igorevich: Sergey Semishkur
Konchakovna: Anita Rachvelishvili
Khan Konchak: Stefan Kocan

Russia has been in the news a lot lately, for good and not so good reasons. However, one thing that this country can be unreservedly proud of is its impressive musical heritage. Therefore, when Borodin's Prince Igor, about which I knew nothing, except for the popular "Polovtsian Dances", appeared in the Met's season, I was kind of leaning toward going, out of nothing but plain curiosity. That being said, the idea of sitting in an opera house for over four hours made me look for a little reassurance in terms of general quality. When the buzz turned out to be generally positive, I bought a ticket, took a couple of days off from work, and eventually joined a packed house last night, serendipitously running into some old friends who had had the same curiosity in the process.
After working on the opera in his spare time for 18 years (That's what happens when you're a full-time research scientist, professor and lecturer), Borodin died suddenly before finishing it. So it fell on his friends Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov to take the various pieces he had left behind and create a cohesive work out of them. They were so successful that the result ended up enjoying a long and lasting popularity in Russia, if not the rest of the world.

Enter Dmitri Tcherniako and Gianandrea Noseda, the Russian director and Italian conductor of the current Met production, who took it upon themselves to do their own thing with it, including altering the story, rearranging the scenes, designing the sets and adding some music. Since there is no original Prince Igor by default, there were probably not many qualms to be had about going against the composer's wishes as long as the general spirit of Borodin's endeavor was respected. In any case, I would not have anything to compare it with to begin with, which allowed me to take it all in with a wide open mind.
The opera's title may be Prince Igor, but the headliner disappeared for long stretches of time. When he was on stage, however, Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov's solid presence was unmistakable. His confident, handsomely burnished singing was not particularly deep, but richly lyrical. Since his part consisted mostly in being a tortured soul full of remorse and yet not giving up hope, his acting skills were more than up to the task. This prince was by no means an all-around hero, but one cared for him.
On the other hand, it was easy to look at Yaroslavna, Prince Igor's dignified wife, as the main character of the opera as she readily took charge of the kingdom when her husband did not return. Far from the doomed damsel-in-distress she could have become, Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka was a fiercely devoted spouse made of unpliable steel, even when the occasional moment of self-doubt assailed her. Accordingly, her singing was intense, fearless and imperturbable. This was a princess you did not want to cross.
And that's just what her brother learned at his own expense. As the compulsory bad boy, Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko had all the right stuff for Prince Galitsky, Yaroslavna's permanently nasty, frequently drunk sibling with the devil-may-care attitude. In the role of the accommodating captor, Slovakian bass Stefan Kocan was an all-powerful Khan Konchak.
The young star-crossed lovers, Vladimir, the captive son of Prince Igor, and Konchakovna, the daughter of his captor, were a pleasure for the eyes and the ears as they frolicked among the vibrantly red poppies. Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili looked and sounded like a young Anna Netrebko-in-waiting with her sultry figure and luscious voice. Russian tenor Sergey Semishkur was a disarmingly ardent young man put in an unquestionably tricky position.
But when all was said and done, the true vocal star of the opera was indisputably the superb Met chorus, which sounded as magnificent as ever, no matter what kind of combination they were singing in. Whether divided or together, they added musical heft and emotional power to the scene every single time they appeared. Just getting to hear them expertly tackle such a wide range of choral writing was worth the price of the ticket alone.
A big deal had been made of the colorful poppy field that brightens up Act I during Prince Igor's hallucinations. It was indeed a striking sight, and probably one of the very few times where I was actually happy to be located in the nose-bleed section so that I could have a full overview of the stage. It vividly evoked the mysterious exoticism of the Polovtsian steppes in a surreal, yet very physical, kind of way. The magic ceased to operate though, when dancers - bare-chested men and white-flowing-dress-clad women - started literally popping up and soon engaged in what my friend Steve knowingly assessed as a "rave" (I am no expert on the subject, so I will not comment any further), which suddenly turned into a much more energetic number for the famous "Polovtsian Dances". Even Prince Igor looked a bit puzzled at the whole thing, and really, who could blame him?
In sharp contrast to the visual splendor of the dreamlike poppy-filled landscape, the rest of the décors dealt with reality and were consequently much more sober and versatile, which significantly contributed in quickly setting the environment of each scene. If only we could have gotten a better sense of  time and place - The plot was originally inspired by a 12th century folk tale, but some people walked around in modern outfits, so it was all very vague - that would have been helpful.
One clever decision was to have black and white videos in Act I to make up for some missing passages. This modern element incorporated in the theatrical presentation of an epic story was a bold and winning move. The close-ups of Prince Igor's face and the short excerpts of the battle and its aftermath were beautifully eloquent, and it is regrettable that nothing of that sort was included in the other acts.
Overall, the opera's current structure came out fairly well, but it still had slight remaining issues. Even without being familiar with the previous version, it was not hard to spot a few debatable choices that created discombobulation or confusion, such as Yaroslavna's incongruously showing up in the poppies or the flashback of the Prince's escape in Act III. As for inserting Borodin's "The River Don Floods" after the traditional ending, it was not necessary, but it worked just fine, adding a final touch of faint hope as the arduous rebuilding started.
The music was plush Russian Romanticism all the way, and although Borodin did not fully possess the musical chops of his country's most prominent composers, he clearly knew how to turn out show-stopping arias, gripping chorus numbers and catchy dance routines. Being intimately involved in the production did pay off in spades for maestro Gianandrea Noseda as he drew voluptuous lines out of singers and musicians alike while keeping a firm grasp on the sprawling score.
What more could one ask for? Well, a few edits here and there would not hurt, and tightening up a few loose ends would be a good idea too. In the meantime, we'll happily keep this Prince Igor.

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