Wednesday 2 April 2014

Borodin's Prince Igor at the London Coliseum

Prince Igor - Polovtsian Dances: Novaya Opera
Prince Igor - Polovtsian Dances: Novaya Opera
Borodin Prince Igor: Novaya Opera, Jan Latham-Koenig: London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 1 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Vibrant, if old-fashioned, production with some very fine voice.

Borodin's opera Prince Igor is a rare visitor to these shores so it was a pleasure to be able to catch Novaya Opera's performance of the work at the London Coliseum (1 April 2014). It was the Moscow-based opera company's debut performance in the UK, and their production of King Igor was conducted by their British musical director Jan Latham-Koenig. The opera was directed by Yuri Alexandrov (whose directing credits include Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades at the Met), designed by Georgy Kovtun and Irina Sharonova with a cast which included Sergey Artamonov, Elena Popovskaya, Aleksey Tatrintsev, Evgeny Stavinsky, Vladimir Kudashev and Agunda Kuleaeva.

Borodin spent 18 years writing Prince Igor his problems caused partly by the fatal mistake of starting the music before he'd finished the libretto. He left the piece unfinished at his death and the standard version is the one completed by Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov. The result is a plum-pudding of a piece, one where the plums are barely held in place by the surrounding fabric.

Novaya Opera's version was based on the Glazunov/Rimsky-Korsakov version but with changes and omissions. Roughly speaking what we got was as follows. Prologue (Igor preparing to leave to fight), Overture, Act 1 (Prince Galitsky's court/Yaroslavna's scene), Act 2 (The Polovtsian Camp), Act 4 (Yaroslavna's aria, duet with Igor and final chorus). The overture was used as an entracte to cover a scene change, Act 3 (which was largely written by Glazunov) was omitted and we lost a large chunk of Act 4, so that the two character roles from Act 1, scene1 (Skula, and Yeroshka) do not reappear.

Alexandrov's production seems to have aimed at solving the opera's problems by presenting us with a series of gorgeous tableaux rather than a dramatically coherent narrative. The prologue and act one were a symphony of rich fabrics, shining gold and fake hair. The production style was curiously old-fashioned, as was the acting. Having never seen the company before I was unclear whether we were seeing their house style of acting, or whether Alexandrov deliberately wanted something which evoked Prince Igor productions of the past; after all this is a company whose production of Lohengrin was directed by Kasper Holten.

For Act 1 scene 1, the scene in Prince Galitsky's court, Alexandrov had decided to treat the crowd scenes as something out of Boris Godunov and the two minstrels (gudok players, where a gudok is a stringed instrument) became drunken fools. Frankly the over-done crowd scenes and comic business got a bit much and it was a relief to get to Yaroslavna's scene. But here again Alexandrov was determined to introduce character, and we had a group of elderly, hunchbacked nuns. After the interval, for the Polovtsian camp, we wondered what had hit us as Kovtun and Sharonova's designs ran riot, whilst Alexandrov's staging of the Polovtsian Dances seemed to take in a bewildering variety of nationalities (had Khan Konchak conquered half the globe!).

Prince Igor : Novaya Opera
Prince Igor : Novaya Opera
There was a sense of follow that! And the back-stage crew clearly couldn't; Yaroslavna's aria at the opening to the final act was accompanied by very audible back-stage shouts. This aria was staged in front of a backdrop with projections, with no sense of place; we seemed to have wandered into another opera production entirely. There was certainly no feeling for why Yaroslavna was lamenting. Following her reuniting with Igor (alone and not with Ovlur) we cut directly to the closing chorus. This accentuated the feeling of random snapshots of characters rather than dramatic progression. The production left us with no clear idea of who these people were or how they interacted. Luckily the production was accompanied by a very strong musical performance.

Sergey Artamonov made a strong and virile Igor, though he was rather stiff of demeanour on-stage. But in his one moment of glory, the aria in Act 2 where he sings of his disgrace at being captured and laments the death of his followers, Artamonov impressed greatly with the expressive flexibility of his performance combined with a gorgeous dark bass voice. As Igor's wife Yaroslavna, Elena Popvskaya displayed a wonderfully gleaming dramatic soprano voice (she sings Wagner's Elsa and Isolde) which she used intelligently. She had a rich Slavic vibrato, but not excessively, and there was a sense that the very top of her voice lacked freedom but overall this was a superb instrument expressively used. In both her Act 1 and Act 4 solos, she impressed with the power and expressiveness of her performance.

Aleksey Tatrintsev as Igor's son Vladimir displayed a finely vibrant lyric tenor voice in his scene in Act 2. His cavatina was finely sung and it came as no surprise to find the singer's repertoire includes both Tchaikovsky's Lensky and Donizetti roles. In the duet with Agunda Kulaeva's Konchakovna you did rather feel that she could eat him for breakfast. Kulaeva was a highly characterful performer with a dark-toned contralto voice which impressed in both her solo and in the duet with Tatrintsev.

Vladimir Kudashev was rather stiff as Konchak, but made an impressive physical presence and sang his aria with aplomb. Yaroslav Abaimov had almost no chance to display his talent as his role as Ovlur was rather cut. Evgeny Stavinsky made an excellent Prince of Galich, suggesting both the character's pleasure loving nature and his lazily evil ways. Abaimov displayed a fine bass baritone voice which made it all the more frustrating that Borodin disposes of the character after a single scene.

Anatoly Girgoriev and Maksim Ostoukhov played the two gudok players, gamely entering into the drunken hi-jinks in Act 1, but the fact that the characters were not allowed to re-appear in the final act left us wondering who on earth they were. Svetlana Skripkina was the Nurse and Galina Kotoleva was the Polovtsian Maid.

The large chorus was made a wonderful full-bodied sound, and the end of the prologue had a choral sound with a vibrant edge the like of which we never hear usually in the UK. They entered with a will into all of the director's requirements, with the Polovtsian Dances in particular using both their singing and moving to the full. Under Latham-Koenig's expert direction the orchestra played vibrantly and with a nice degree of sophistication of tone and not a little excitement.

Having heard the opera, I cannot help but feel that it is time that a UK opera company tackled it. Musicologists have move on since Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov, and there are more considered recent editions of the work. I think that in order to assess Borodin's achievement we need to hear the whole opera particularly as Act 3 (the Glazunov act usually cut) includes some of plot's scenes of greatest drama.

This was a big, vibrant production of a problem opera. In terms of style, the staging and the performance had a confidence which was admirable in its way and you could not but help admire the performers and what they had achieve. We heard some very fine voices and Novaya Opera made a notable debut in the UK.

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