It is only one of the peculiarities of Borodin’s Prince Igor that it begins where many another opera might end, with a triumphal chorus proclaiming “Slava! Slava!” to the glory of the titular prince. Resonantly conjuring the sound of cathedral bells, it is music that sounds like a fulfillment. Here we would expect the curtain to fall, on a hard-won note of jubilation. But the curtain has just gone up; the troops are not arriving but departing. Prince Igor addresses the chorus with a droning exhortation—“Let’s march into battle against the enemies of Russia!”—setting off a liturgical call-and-response on the theme of crushing the foe and washing away wrongs with enemy blood. We are braced at the start with an overwhelming surge of unified will, a surge that as it turns out will not subsequently be recaptured. Within a few bars, an eclipse of the sun will cast an evil omen over the expedition that is just starting out.
In Dmitri Tcherniakov’s remarkably gripping new production—the first time the opera has been staged at the Met since 1917—that spirit of unity has been compromised before the singing even begins. A title announces in advance: “To unleash a war is the surest way to escape from oneself.” The soldiers, assembled in a vast barnlike hall, wear the uniforms not of twelfth-century Kiev but, apparently, of that tsarist regime that at the time of the last Met performance had just been overthrown. While they sing their song of glory, Prince Igor—Ildar Abdrazakov—in a brown leather jacket, paces uneasily, the picture of distracted uncertainty. He is a leader so ill at ease with leadership that he looks as if he might simply wander away from the whole thing.
The eclipse that a moment later darkens the stage merely confirms a mood that has already presaged disaster. Prince Igor is ineluctably the account of a defeat—historically, the bloody failure in 1185 of an expedition led by the Kievan prince Igor against Cuman (or Polovtsian) nomadic tribesmen—but that has not prevented it from being often recast in a mode of nationalist glorification flavored with folkloric embellishments. Tcherniakov seems determined from the outset to curtail any such impulse. The war to which these soldiers are marching off is—as in 1914—of the kind that leaves no recognizable homeland to return to.
After the prologue we find ourselves momentarily detained by a projection of black-and-white battle scenes that recall such cinematic distillations of World War I horror as Abel Gance’s J’Accuse or G.W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918: close-ups of recruits staring aghast into the face of battle, piles of corpses, silent bombardments. Gradually, from behind the scrim, women’s voices are heard singing an entrancing melody that could not be more at odds with the war footage. When the stage is finally revealed, we see…
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