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|A CurtainUp Review
By David Lipfert
The first complete opera presented during the current Kirov Opera Festival at the Metropolitan Opera was Borodin's Prince Igor. The last large-scale staged performance of this work in New York may have been done at the old Met theater a few weeks after the October Revolution, but studio and pirate recordings have made Borodin's only opera well known. (Melodies from the second act found their way into the musical Kismet.) A central work in the Russian operatic repertory, Borodin's score relies on the models of Middle Verdi, pre-Ring Wagner and Meyerbeer, all through the lens of Dvorak's choral works. The Russian opera chorus becomes a separate, individual character, inseparable from the dialogue and plot development, somewhat comparable to the role of the chorus in Greek drama.
This edition of Prince Igor seems to be largely based on the Rimsky- Korsakov/Glazunov version of the score, incomplete at Borodin's death, with important changes to the final act. After Yaroslavna's poignant pleading with natural forces for Prince Igor's return from captivity with the Polovtsian tribes, there is an emotional duet of reunion. An a capella chorus, superbly performed by the Kirov chorus, brings the opera to a quiet close. This is a startling contrast to the time-sanctified rousing finale with amusing dialog by the two comic characters, Skula and Yerosha. The difference is as great as that between the endings of Verdi's first and second Macbeth and the two versions of Rossini's finale for Tancredi. That this quiet ending for Prince Igor better matches Borodin's intent is supported by the comment the composer penned in the margin of his sketches, that in the historical record the Russians were never able to decisively defeat their Central Asian rival.
In broad terms, the story line follows a cultural conflict between Orthodox Christianity and Islam as personified by the Russians under Prince Igor and the Polovtsians, who have invaded Russian territory. After the Prince goes to war against the enemy, he is captured along with his son Vladimir. Even though the two are prisoners, Khan Konchak treats them with utmost respect, even offering them lavish entertainment. Vladimir has fallen in love with the Khan's daughter, Konchakovna, and stays behind with the Polovtsians when his father escapes to return to his wife Yaroslavna and his people. The agent of Igor's liberation is a Muslim convert to Christianity who provides the getaway horses. The first act also shows the boorish brother of Yaroslavna, Prince Galitsky, ill treating the populace as substitute ruler in Igor's absence. While numerous explicit references to the Orthodox faith by the Russians make it seem that paganism is extinct, it is curious that the folk are unnerved by a solar eclipse in the prologue and that Yaroslavna addresses the Dnieper River to bring back Igor. The Prince's Muslim counterpart Khan Konchak is portrayed as shrewd but also generous and respectful of the Prince's bravery.
The production was unveiled only late last year, and is reputed to be the most abstract of the four productions that the Kirov will perform. Monochrome backdrops made of large, irregular pieces of crepe paper and large sculptural pieces make for often stark stage pictures. In the first act, oversized intertwined abstracted Orthodox crosses reside at each side. The Polovtsian camp consists of tall transparent tents with a starry background.
Amid the production's modern elements is Mikhail Fokine's choreography for the famous dances of Act II for the Mariinsky world premiere in 1890. Instead of today's lifts, leaps and long line, Fokine created prancy movements, perhaps in the spirit of the superb horsemen that the Central Asians produced.
Boris Gruzin is not a flashy conductor-all the better to get the best playing from the outstanding Kirov orchestra. As is customary in Russian performance practice, the lower-range instruments are heard prominently and middle voices in the score become partners with the melodies. The Kirov chorus acquits itself well, especially in the final moments of the opera. The soloists in this second night's cast are rather variable. As Yaroslavna, Larisa Shevchenko reminds us of the fast-disappearing glory of Russian singing. Her Prince, Mikhail Kit, has a fine quality to his bass, while Vladimir Ognovenko's Prince Galitsky makes us wonder what has happened to the great tradition of Russian acting. As Khan Konchak, basso Askar Abdrazakov made the most interesting stage presence. Young Zlata Bulycheva (Konchakovna) should become a rewarding artist. Irina Dzhioeva and Olga Markova-Mikhailenko did well in two smaller roles. As the two buffoon musicians Skula and Yerosha, Fedor Kuznetsov and Leonid Zakhozahaev not only sang well but also offered some nifty dancing. In contrast to his appearances during the Kirov Opera's last visit in 1992, tenor Gegam Grigorian's tone was lackluster. In his defense and that of the remainder of the cast, it should be noted that all have rehearsed relentlessly over the past week.
The second-night cast seen by this reviewer also did the Prince Igor dress rehearsal two ago right before participating in the opening night gala concert. The company also tours extensively throughout the season and some of the soloists have important international careers. It will take time to wean Western audiences away from the name Kirov; for now, the company's historic theater in St. Petersburg is now referred to as the Mariinsky Theater. Perhaps by the next time the troupe comes to New York, the original name can be used.
Running time is about four hours with two intermissions.
Links to other operas reviewed in this series:
Betrothal in a Monastery
Ruslan and Lyudmilar