Monday, 3 March 2014

Prince Igor, Met Opera Live, 1 March 2014

Cineworld, West India Quay

Prince Igor – Ildar Abdrazakov
Prince Galitsky – Mikhail Petrenko
Vladimir Igorevich – Sergey Semishkur
Skula – Vladimir Ognovenko
Yeroshka – Andrey Popov
Yaroslavna – Oksana Dyka
Polovtsian Maiden – Kiri Deonarine
Konchakovna – Anita Rachvelishvili
Ovlur – Mikhail Vekua
Khan Konchak – Štefan Kocán
Yaroslavna’s Nurse – Barbara Dever
Dmitri Tcherniakov (director, set designs)
Elena Zaitseva (costumes)
Gleb Filhtinsky (lighting)
Itzik Galili (choreography)
S Katy Tucker (projection designs)

Metropolitan Opera Chorus (chorus master: Donald Palumbo)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Gianandrea Noseda (conductor)

Of the three Met Opera Live broadcasts I have seen, this was far and away the best. No one, I assume, would speak of it quite in the same breath as Boris Godunov or Khovanschina, but one cannot but think of it in relation to them, especially to the latter, its libretto by Vladimir Stasov, who also created the scenario from the original epic for Borodin to write his own text.

The only real adverse criticism I have relates to that ‘positioning’ within Russian opera. Gianandrea Noseda conducted very well on the whole; the Met Orchestra sounded on excellent form throughout, again quite the best I have heard it in any of these broadcasts. One could imagine its magnificent fullness of tone reaching even the farthest-flung reaches of that vast barn in which the company is stranded. However, though this was certainly far preferable to the sub-Toscanini Beethoven I have heard from this conductor’s baton, there were sections, especially earlier on, in which the music veered too close to soft-centred Verdi (or, if you like, to Ruslan and Lyudmila). On a crude ‘Russian’ scale, surely it should at the very least sound on the Mussorgsky- rather than on the Verdi-side of Tchaikovsky. Otherwise, Noseda, who, it seems, had compiled the edition employed in tandem with the director, Dmitri Tcherniakov, shaped the musical drama well, only occasionally driving too hard, and investing the final act in particular with a pessimistic historical weight that brought us back to the world of Khovanschina. The chorus, here of course allotted a huge role, sang – and acted – with exemplary commitment throughout, and not just in the celebrated Polotsvian dances. (What an effect they must have had on French listeners when Diaghilev had them performed in 1909!) Chorus master, Donald Palumbo must share a good deal of the credit for that.

I am no Borodin scholar, so am more than a little wary of pontificating about, or even delineating, the new ‘version’ we heard. Briefly, then – and I shall happily be corrected – we seem to have been given an edition in which the order of Borodin’s first two acts is reversed, allegedly with some justification in the composer’s intentions, a little-used version of Igor’s third-act monologue, and brings in at the close music from Borodin’s contribution to the composite, also incomplete Mlada, not to be confused with Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera-ballet of the same name and to the same libretto (!) Already things are becoming far too complicated for me. (For a short summary of earlier performing versions, I recommend looking at Richard Taruskin’s New Grove article upon the opera. And for the textual issues relating to this particular version, Zerbinetta’s review is well worth a read, as it is for her review itself.) The ending for me remains a problem: the opera seems more to stop rather than to conclude, but even here, Tcherniakov’s conception of Igor’s internal struggle is suggestive. Taruskin’s summary of the work as ‘a magnificent farrago, a smorgåsbord from which all listeners and critics seem to find some morsel to their taste’ seemed in this context to under-appreciate its virtues. But maybe that was a measure of my naïveté in this repertoire. Certainly the remark made by the composer in a letter, cited by Taruskin at the end of his article, rang true:

Curiously enough, all the members of our circle seem to come together on my Igor: from the ultra-innovatory realist Modest Petrovich, to the hyric-dramatic innovator César Antonovich [Cui], to the martinet with respect to outward form and musical tradition Nikolay Andreyevich, to the ardent champion of novelty and power in all things, Vladimir Vasil’yevich Stasov. Everyone is satisfied with Igor, strongly though they may differ about other things.

Tcherniakov’s typically thoughtful direction played no small part in that outcome – though I am a little surprised that it did not cause a riot at this most reactionary of major houses. (Perhaps it was easier to do something interesting in a work not so many of the audience would have known, or indeed which the more reactionary elements in a typical audience would not have attended? Or maybe, just maybe, excellent direction opened their eyes and ears, in which case three cheers to them as well as to production and performances!) Tcherniakov places much of the action (earlier twentieth-century) in what seems to be a dream world, and which is clearly no mere fantasy. Or rather, it is a fantasy in which we are complicit, orientalism and all, Tcherniakov’s treatment pointing to and indeed working out out one of the potential problems with the score: a musical as well as a critical move. Following a chilling, militaristic Prologue – does Russian historical drama ever fail to be relevant to our present? – Igor falls at the opening of what is now the first act, video footage illustrating the fate of ‘our’ boys on the battlefield. (I suspect the projections would have registered more strongly in the theatre, a cinema broadcast not being the ideal mode of presentation. We got the idea, though.) The Polotsvian world thus becomes Igor’s dream – and ours. Sickly eroticised choreography as well as personified, characterised temptations of the flesh question our Orientalist fantasies as well as those of the Khan’s ‘guest’. A spectacular poppy field prompts thoughts both of opium and of Flanders carnage. Quite whether the second and third acts are ‘real’ or not remains in question. The relatively conventional – knowingly so –setting for the political machinations at Igor’s court in the second act suggest reality as well as Mussorgskian realism. But we question, as indeed we do in the third act, to what extent this world and the need for Igor’s return are the prince’s own construction. Shades, then, of Rienzi and countless other charismatic heroes, are suggested, but the audience is treated in adult fashion, prompted to make up its own mind, to make its own way through what may or may not be more than Taruskin’s ‘smorgåsbord’. This, undoubtedly, is opera as drama – as my clearly-impressed mother, seeing her first cinema broadcast of opera, commented afterwards.

In the title role, Ildar Abdrazakov was superb, doing more than anyone could reasonably have asked of him. Neither musical nor dramatic commitment – in reality, and even in ‘high definition’ reality, they were as one – could be faulted, in a tireless performance, both troubling and moving. Mikhail Petrenko brought shades of his controversial Hagen to the role of Prince Galitsky: what a deliciously devious villain he can be! As Yaroslavna, Igor’s Penelope, as it were, Oksana Dyka offered a dignified portrayal, conflicted yet ever true, both to husband and to her people. Anita Rachvelishvili, whom I had thought sadly miscast as Covent Garden’s Carmen,  was here utterly in her element as the embodiment of Oriental temptation, Konchakovna. There was gravedigger-style mendicant humour from the accomplished Skula and Yeroshka of Vladimir Ognovenko and Andrey Popov, a beautifully-sung and –acted Nurse from Barbara Dever, a nicely menacing Khan Konchak from Štefan Kocán, and much more: not, for me at least, a weak link in the cast, and Tcherniakov’s detailed direction paid enormous dividends in every case.

A sprawling, problematical epic, then, was revealed through performances and staging alike to have more than enough worthy of salvage. Borodin’s unfinished opera – here fascinatingly, if not always quite convincingly, finished by others – emerged as a wayward yet honoured successor to the masterpieces of Mussorgsky. This co-production with the Dutch National Opera demands a DVD release.

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