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 only a vast field of poppies under an empty sky. It is to this dreamy diorama that Tcherniakov has reduced the Polovtsian encampment to which Igor, defeated in battle, has been taken as a captive.
It is clear from the start that Tcherniakov’s production (of which he is the set designer as well as director) is of the free-handed, high-concept variety that is not rare in opera today. What is striking in this production, beyond what one might make of one or another of his interpretive ideas, is the cohesion of all the elements of music and drama and design into a single effect. The solo singers, the orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, the magnificent chorus that carries so much of Igor’s musical burden are fused in a common gesture. Tcherniakov oversaw a memorable production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh at the Met in 2003; it is to be hoped that he will do more work here before another decade passes.
Around the point where the eye begins to adjust to the unbroken red of the poppy field, one might well ask, “Where’s Igor?”—a question that this opera often elicits in any case, since the prince is absent from long stretches of it. He rises to his feet, finally, in the midst of the field, as if he had fallen asleep among the poppies. For the rest of the act he will remain there, sometimes wandering with halting, bewildered steps, sometimes clutching his head as if in pain or trying to shut out memories, while other characters—his son Vladimir (Sergey Semishkur), the Polovtsian Khan Konchak (Štefan Kocán) and his daughter Konchakovna (Anita Rachvelishvili), the mute apparition of Igor’s wife Yaroslavna (Oksana Dyka, heard to splendid effect in the rest of the opera), the troupe of captive dancers—come and go like figures of whom he is dreaming. The way they brush by each other without quite interacting, or touch without seeming to see each other, suggests that we have reached some inward psychic layer on which outer events only distantly impinge.
The distinction between what is happening and what is being imagined is carefully blurred, and we are free to take all of it as the hallucination of a wounded man suffering the aftermath of trauma. When Igor sings “I relive the past,” the words appear to elucidate the nature of the dramatic action. They also serve as a reminder of how curious a hero Igor is, a hero whose story consists of leading an army to defeat, being taken prisoner, managing to escape, and returning to his city, which has in the meantime been pillaged and left in ruins. The opera is more about the catastrophes that result from his absence than about anything he actually does. As a stage presence he expresses, most of the time, feelings of grief, regret, and shame, or at best a stoic endurance.
The famous Polovtsian dances are staged at the behest of his captor, anxious to dispel Igor’s despondency, and they mark an explosion of color and high spirits entirely at odds with Igor’s monochrome depression. In this light the blinding red of the poppies that dominates the spectacle can be taken both as shock effect and healing dose to cure the wounded hero. The poppies also underscore how irresistibly pervasive is Borodin’s music, throughout the opera but nowhere more so than in the long Polovtsian act: a kind of opium in its most lyrical stretches, warm and attentive at every point whether it evokes sensual pleasure or deep melancholy or desperate yearning.
When Tcherniakov, to magnify the effect, has the Met chorus take over the box seats on both sides, the resulting oceanic sonority can be felt as infusing energy ministering directly to the damaged prince. The dancers, when they emerge, cannot in this production compete with the music, especially since their feet are hidden by the poppies, but the moment is nonetheless exhilarating: the vision of another, earlier Rite of Spring on the steppes, opening a door to an alternate and ecstatic culture. It is another oddity of Prince Igor to provide this climax that is not a climax, since Igor is predestined to slam the door on any such invitation. The opera makes thrillingly audible the possibility of a world that was never really possible: a world in which Russia could be reconciled to the temptation of an East that it turned into a symbol of exotic beauty but could find no means to approach other than conquest.
The tantalizing sense of possibilities glimpsed but not realized is appropriate to Prince Igor as an opera that in some sense hovers as a vision of something not quite all there. It was never finished—Borodin worked on it for twenty years and never came close to pulling together the pieces of it—and was published in 1888, a year after the composer’s death, in a form energetically cobbled together by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov. The overture was composed by Glazunov, who attempted to reconstruct what he had heard Borodin play for him; the third act, in which Igor escapes, was likewise composed mostly by Glazunov; much of the orchestration was provided by Rimsky-Korsakov; and the structure was determined posthumously, since Borodin, developing the libretto in tandem with the music, had not achieved a final form for either. Their initial version has been revisited by many others, and Tcherniakov’s production represents a new and perhaps more radical version of the opera.
In the process a great deal of what Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov added has been jettisoned, including the overture and most of the third act, and music that they rejected has been included, most notably a newly orchestrated soliloquy by the returning Igor that in Tcherniakov’s interpretation becomes a pivotal expression of survivor’s guilt: “Why didn’t I die in battle?… Death, why did you spare me?… I am the shame of my country.” (Ildar Abdrazakov’s strong performance here reached a despairing still point that defined the last act.) It is not a question of reverting to Borodin’s intentions, which are unknowable, but of imagining another way of assembling what remains a set of fragments. To perform Prince Igor at all means taking up again the endlessly renewed attempt to restore a lost original that never really was.
The usual story is that Borodin was too busy as a professor of chemistry, and later too weighed down by illness, to wrap up his opera. In that case the completed Prince Igor would be something that just slipped frustratingly out of reach, to be longed for as a nationalist daydreams about the imagined integrity of some primeval Rus. But perhaps Borodin did not finish it because he could not resolve its contradictions in a way that satisfied him—contradictions that are not only dramaturgical but profoundly cultural and political. Igor would then be a work not merely unfinished but inherently unfinishable, a modernist work by virtue of its essential fragmentariness. There is a haunting asymmetry that persists no matter how the pieces are put together, and that feels deliberate. The power of the individual scenes and pieces of music is augmented by the gaps that separate them.
No matter how much effort is made to untangle the discontinuities, the sense of breakage and disappearance, of alternate possibilities and dropped threads, comes through. As an extreme example, a Soviet film version made in 1969, with movie actors lip-syncing the vocal score, made every effort to give the opera the effect of conventional cinematic narrative, cutting the music by more than half and busily rearranging scenes to recreate the logic of a classic Hollywood scenario. The ultimate effect was, however, more like avant-garde collage, the fusion of a medievalist cowboy picture with a gorgeous Ukrainian travelogue, with Polovtsian maidens offering the captive prince an alluring if restrained cabaret floor show, and the finale staged as a renewed and unproblematic march against Russia’s enemies. Through all this the opera’s sustained undertone of melancholy came through unimpeded, along with its troubling hints of strategic uncertainty and political instability.
Borodin was undertaking to retrieve a history that had itself only survived in fragmentary form. The Song of Igor’s Campaign, a singular and anonymous masterpiece of early Russian literature, apparently composed not long after the events it describes, was recovered in the late eighteenth century from a neglected manuscript and published in 1800 before the original copy was destroyed in the burning of Moscow in 1812.* It is a poem of sometimes overwhelming imagistic power, steeped in an atmosphere of prophecy and bardic recollection, where events evoke a stream of metaphors—falcons, wolves, storms, “demon ravens,” “blue mist,” “wine mixed with bane”—and where echoes from the past inform every present action. The critic Vladimir Stasov, who suggested the poem to Borodin as the basis for an opera, noted its richness in “national elements” and “all the colorful characteristics of the Orient”; nevertheless Borodin was obliged to supply most of the drama for himself, building on historical hints. The Oriental color emerges in the invented exoticism of the Polovtsian music; the national elements, curiously, come to the fore most decisively in scenes of riot and disorder.
For nearly half the opera Igor is off stage. In his absence his wife Yaroslavna must contend with the unruly ambition of her brother Prince Galitsky, appointed by Igor as a surrogate. Galitsky, a highly entertaining lord of misrule as embodied by Mikhail Petrenko, nearly takes over the opera musically in the same way that he seeks to take over Igor’s principality politically. He leads his cohort of deserters and malingerers in midnight revels of great exuberance, lifting the mood momentarily into the realms of comic opera.
The temptations of chaos receive their due in a scene that, after letting a chorus of drunkards run wild, finally spirals into a note closer to terror. Just as Borodin gives Igor’s Polovtsian captors the most seductively lyrical music, he assigns to the prince’s home-front enemies the catchiest numbers (augmented, in this production, by a scene from another unfinished Borodin opera). But as the music is given free rein it becomes an omen of impending collapse into a ravenous disorder that is always lying in wait.
What in this production were the first and second acts have often been done in reverse order. However they are sequenced, the space between them reinforces the idea of two separate realms, two mutually irreconcilable armed camps. At the dramatic center of one is the captive Igor; in the other, the bereft Yaroslavna. The music they sing, each in solitude, is insistently about loneliness and separation. The music they sing together after they are reunited in the last act cannot compare to the mournful power of what they sing alone.
Yaroslavna is as strong a character as Igor, but like his it is a strength measured by the frankness with which each confesses to being at a loss, overwhelmed, grief-stricken. Yaroslavna’s long lament performed (in this version) at the beginning of the second act—“Terrifying nightmares torment my sleep, I often dream my beloved is beside me…. Yet he fades away further and further”—makes audible the strong sustained sorrow that seems to lie at the root of the opera.
In seeking to strip away everything suggestive of folklore or patriotic pageant or nostalgia for some Kievan golden age, Tcherniakov achieves a spareness that at times echoes the harsh poetry of the original epic. Everything builds toward a final act set in a scene of total devastation, with Yaroslavna visibly reduced to the same level of poverty and despair as her subjects. Igor’s homecoming is marked by a mood of numb incommunicability. Only at the very end is a way out suggested, as the prince, moving with difficulty, begins to pick up fallen beams as a first step toward restoring the ruined city. One might question this as an unwarranted attempt to impose an ending, but where no ending exists something must after all be done. That indeed is just what, in another register, Igor’s action implies.
The authenticity of the work has sometimes been questioned; Vladimir Nabokov, in the foreword to his translation, having noted the unlikelihood of an eighteenth-century forger “endowed with a degree of genius exceeding in originality and force that of the only major poet of the time (Derzhavin) and possessing an amount of special erudition in regard to the Kievan era which none in his time possessed,” admits that “we still have to cope with certain eerie doubts.” ↩