Today’s High Definition broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera (Dmitri Tcherniakov’s version of Borodin’s Prince Igor) threw me. I’m sure I couldn’t be the only person amazed at how perfectly the show seemed to match what’s unfolding, while the world holds its collective breath awaiting Vladimir Putin’s next move or a response from the West. The dark side of dreaming of world peace is the fear of annihilation in the madness of war.
Prince Igor? No nukes yet. But he leaves Putivl to defend Russia against the Polovtsian invaders from the east. He fails, falling captive to the surprisingly friendly Khan Konchak, leader of the enemy, while his son Vladimir falls in love with a princess. In his absence, Igor’s brother in law seeks power. Before he can cause too much trouble, the invaders do a better job of it, destroying Putivl. At the end, Igor returns to a city in ruins, blaming himself for what happened, and encouraging his people to rebuild.
I’ve wondered how to decode this story since I first encountered the work in an old film from the Kirov opera. Yes, there have been different ways to assemble the fragments –of Borodin’s unfinished opera—pointing to different meanings. When that Kirov version has Igor ride into the sunset having apparently made peace with the friendly Polovtsians, it seemed emblematic of that ultimate melting pot multi-cultural state: the Soviet Union. How should we decode the story now? For example as a friend pointed out on Facebook the upstart brother-in-law Prince Galitzky’s name means he’s Galician: a foreigner. But wait, in this story –where Igor’s son Vladimir falls in love with the daughter of his Polovtsian enemy—who isn’t a foreigner? There aren’t countries in the modern sense after all. If Galitzky is a foreigner, than so is Igor’s faithful wife (Galitzky’s sister). Is inter-marriage code for alliance and even conquest? In the 21st century it all reads differently of course.
Dreams figure prominently, both the waking sort that we think of as aspirations but also the kind that serve as story-telling devices, when we see something as though a character were unconscious. In an interview during the interval Tcherniakov compared his utopian scenes in the first act to the island in Alcina, another place to explore archetypal possibilities. For this purpose 12,000 fake poppies were crafted as part of a surreal design through which the half-dead Igor walks, encountering his son, Konchak, and hordes of dancers. Just to ensure that we got it, Tcherniakov frames it with a black and white film, first showing the horrors of battle, and then Igor’s unconscious face, to which we periodically returned throughout and again at the very end.
Act II is a different mirror, reminding me of the morass of feuds at our City Hall and the attempts to curry favour with different factions. Where Act I begins with a paean to the glory of Igor & his objectives, in Act II we see a kind of parody complete with half-hearted songs of celebration, where the prince’s brother-in-law takes advantage of loopholes and opportunities, a triumph of de facto wisdom fuelled by alcohol. And then Act III is a remarkable mixture of darkness & sardonic humour, stripping away illusions and lies. Igor returns to a people who continue to idolize him in spite of his failures, an admiration that inspires feelings of guilt and unworthiness.
At the beginning an epigraph is projected: “To unleash a war is the surest way to escape oneself.” I wonder if Tcherniakov would say this to Putin..?
The Met performance was as stellar as one could wish, with Gianandrea Noseda leading the orchestra in a soulful reading. The camera work was as intimate as ever. Ildar Abdrazakov was a suitably heroic Igor, wonderfully conflicted throughout. Mikhail Petrenko played up the dark comedy as the corrupt Prince Galitzky. Oksana Dyka was a very moving Yaroslavna (Igor’s wife), while tenor Sergey Semishkur was spectacular as their son Vladimir.
I don’t know how it comes across in the opera house, but this presentation felt like a movie, with its frequent use of filmed sequences, often in black and white. Tcherniakov’s interpretation is like a defense of Borodin’s score, arguing for its greatness.
The schedule says that encore showings will be offered April 12 & 14, but the best way to be certain is to contact the theatres.