Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Borodin's Prince Igor

Final scene of Novaya Opera's production of Borodin's Prince Igor -  Photo by Daniil Kochetkov
Final scene of Novaya Opera's production of Borodin's Prince Igor
Photo by Daniil Kochetkov
Say the words Borodin and Prince Igor to any music lover and they will almost certainly be able to hum something from the Polovtsian Dances, but press them further and they probably know little else about the opera. Covent Garden did a production in 1990  (alas never revived) conducted by Bernard Haitink, with Anna Tomowa Sintow as Yaroslavna, and Opera North have produced it (conducted by David Lloyd Jones with Margaret Curphy as Yaroslavna), but otherwise to see the piece a UK opera lover must either travel or rely on visiting opera companies. (Valery Gergiev and the Kirov/Mariinsky Company brought it to Covent Garden in 2002). 

Next week Novaya Opera is making its UK debut and bringing its new production of Borodin's Prince Igor to the London Coliseum. The Moscow based opera company is performing in London as part of the year long UK-Russia year of culture. The performances are conducted by Novaya Opera's principal conductor, Jan-Latham Koenig, directed by Yuri Alexandrov and designed by Vyachaslev Okunev. The cast for the first night includes Sergey Artamonov as Prince Igor, Evgeny Stavinsky as Prince of Galich, Elena Popovskaya as Yaroslavna, Aleksey Tatarintsev as Vladimir Igorevich, Vladimir Kudashev as Konchak and Agunda Kulaeva as Konchakovna.

Novaya Opera's production of Borodin's Prince Igor -  Photo by Daniil Kochetkov
Novaya Opera's production of Prince Igor
Photo by Daniil Kochetkov

One of the reasons, perhaps, why the opera is not performed more often is that Borodin never actually finished the work. He worked on it on and off for over 18 years, but on his death in 1887, whole sections were incomplete and there wasn't even a definitive libretto. The piece was inspired by Glinka's famous historical epic, A Life for the Tsar and Borodin started the opera in 1869. He was further spurred on in the 1870's by the successes of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Rimsky-Korsakov's The Maid of Pskov. When Borodin died, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazounov sifted through the manuscripts to see what could be salvaged.

Novaya Opera's production of Borodin's Prince Igor -  Photo by Daniil Kochetkov
Novaya Opera's production of Prince Igor
Photo by Daniil Kochetkov
Chunks of the opera were complete, others existed in piano score whilst for some acts there were only sketches, without even a coherent libretto. The opera that they produced had an overture by Glazounov, with Glazounov also effectively composing act three whilst Rimsky-Korsakov 'sorted out' the other acts. As we know from Rimsky-Korsakov's edition of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, Rimsky-Korsakov was a very interventionist editor, so what we have in the standard edition is very much heard through Rimsky-Korsakov's ears. Many productions miss out the Glazounov act entirely, and Borodin himself seems to have been uncertain of the act order. There have been more recent re-constructions, based on the surviving Borodin manuscripts. Novaya Opera's production is based on the Rimsky-Korsakov/Glazounov edition but edited and arranged by the director Yuri Alexandrov.

There has been a tendency in recent years to move Act 2 of the opera, making it come straight after the prologue. This makes strong dramaturgical sense and the opera's plot reads logically this way, the recent new production at the New York Met did this. Unfortunately, Act 2 has the best known number in it (Prince Igor's aria and the Polovtsian Dances) which means that you get the best bits rather too early on in the opera!

Novaya Opera's production is rather more traditional in style than Dmitri Tcherniakov's production at the New York Met. But one of the reasons why directors still persist with the opera, despite its flaws and unfinished state, is the rather fascinating nature of the plot. Essentially an historical epic, the Russian Prince Igor goes to war against the nomadic Polovtsians. He and his son are taken captive, Igor falls in love with his captor's daughter, refuses a truce, escapes and returns to his city. He feels a failure, his city is in ruins, but he is acclaimed by his people. With Borodin's music and such an intriguing hero, there is enough for directors to work with.

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