March 1st, 2014 was ‘Culture Vulture Saturday’ in Harper’s Valley. It happens a couple of times each season; a day with two operas. In the morning we attended the Met’s “Live in HD” simulcast of Borodin’s Prince Igor. In the evening we attended Arizona Opera’s production of La Traviata. Never has the Arizona Opera looked so good in comparison with The Met.
Prince Igor is an opera with an interesting history. Borodin worked on it, his only opera, for 18 years; from 1869 until his death in 1887. It was incomplete at the time of his death. He’d composed some powerful and beautiful music and a series of scenes but the work was not cohesively formed into an opera. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov took it upon themselves to complete the work and it premiered in 1890. A popular opera in Russia, it is performed less often in the West. The current production is The Met’s first staging of Prince Igor since 1917.
The new Met production is a departure from earlier iterations of Prince Igor. In this case, the director and conductor have reworked the opera significantly. They have re-ordered scenes based on notes left by the composer, eliminated some of the music added after Borodin’s death, and created a completely new ending using music Borodin composed for another work. Their intention was to refocus the story away from its historical epic tone and onto a more fully developed title character. All of that sounds really interesting. So why was I sitting in the theater thinking; ‘this is the worst thing I have ever seen on the Met stage’?
Part of the challenge, for me, is the opera itself. In true Russian fashion, Prince Igor is dark and brooding and moves at a pace that, at times, seems glacial. The revised score adds to my discomfort with the pace because; despite it being the title role, Igor doesn’t sing much. He sings in the Prologue though is silent for much of it. He appears in the new Act I though sings little. He does not appear in Act II at all. He re-enters about half way through the final Act though spends much of it brooding in silence. Igor is a brooder. The director’s effort to refocus the drama on the inner turmoil of Igor without more opportunity for him to sing leaves him wandering around the stage, flailing his arms, and. literally, spinning in circles, silently emoting his inner angst. A little of that goes a long way and this opera, with intermissions, is more than four hours long.
Igor was a 12th century Russian prince and Borodin set his opera in the year 1158 CE. This production updates it closer to the time of its premier; late 19th or early 20th century. Part of the audience’s obligation is to suspend disbelief so I normally try to give a production the benefit of any doubt regarding time & place changes. In this case, however it seemed more than usually troubling. Early in the Prologue a solar eclipse portends bad things to come and everyone is sore afraid of this evil omen. Hysteria over an eclipse makes perfect sense in 1150 CE; in 1900, perhaps not so much. Certainly it would not establish a basis for whatever existential crisis Igor is nursing since he started wandering around the stage looking vexed well before the lights dimmed.
The Prologue and Acts II and III are set in the town of Putivl. The hall has a Soviet-era feel about it but it certainly could have been pre-revolutionary. The costumes clearly establish the time as prior to World War I.
It sounds minor and I am not sure whether my issue is with the set decoration, the costume design or the lighting but, at least on the HD screen, the Boyars’ (noblemen) uniforms were the same color as the walls. At times, in the Prologue their bodies blended into the wall and their heads appeared to bounce around freely, about five feet above the floor. I can envision operas where that might be a desirable effect but, in this case, it was distracting.
The production used pre-recorded, Sergei Eisenstein-style, silent images, before the Prologue, in the transition from the Prologue to Act I, and during Act I. I could not tell how they were presented in the opera house but on the HD screen they were very dramatic. I liked them. They were especially effective in conveying the battle and it’s aftermath. This prompts me to wonder, with the visual technique already established as a part of the production’s language, why they chose not to use such images again to show the battle that destroys Putivl at the end of Act II. Perhaps the images were supposed to exist only in Igor’s mind and were not used because he did not witness the battle of Putivl? This invites the question why black & white images, more akin to the muted color palate of Act III than to the dream sequences in Act I were used. It also prompts me to wonder why so many of the images are close-ups of Igor’s face. This is typically not an image one remembers. These facial images did afford the director opportunity to make the first visual connections between Igor and Christ, however. It is an allusion that will be repeated throughout the production.
In the new production, all of Act I is a dream sequence set in a Polovtsian poppy field. In the older structure this scene was part of Act II. I thought the pre-recorded material was slightly less effective here because it seemed out of synch with the live action. Also, some of the events he envisions in the poppy field are clearly dreams because the other performers are not aware of Igor. At other times, he interacts with the characters in the field. I presume the interactions with his wife (still in Putivl) are memories or fantasies but the images of his son who was with him in the battle and the Polovtsians cannot be memories. He interacts with the characters in the field physically at times. The sequence would have been clearer had there been some visual, or at least physical separation between the dreamer and the dreams. The Polovtsian ballet sequence at the end is wonderful but the whole Act is too long and too muddled.
Acts II and III are more traditionally staged, and a bit of a relief. The realistic staging, darker lighting and muted color palate are in marked contrast aesthetically from the Act I dream sequence but very much, ‘of a piece’ with the Prologue. They reinforces the dream-like quality of the previous Act.
Act III shows the grim aftermath of Putivl’s destruction. Igor appears in the middle of the Act. There is a brief memory sequence, effectively delimited by a change in lighting and more Igor-as-Christ imagery. The former structure of the opera concluded with the people joyously celebrating the return of their Prince. In the new production, additional music has been added of a much more somber tone and Igor leads his people, by example, in beginning to rebuild. This offers one final opportunity to position Igor as a Christ-figure, in case anyone in the audience missed the previous allusions due to their sledgehammer-like subtlety.
I almost left the opera at the end of Act I. I disliked it that much. I’m glad I decided to stay. There is a very dramatic scene in Act II where it appears there may be a gang rape which is surprisingly strong. And I loved the final minutes where the new ending has been added. That means I enjoyed about 30 minutes of the 4.5 hours I invested in Prince Igor.
Aside from those positives, I found it muddled and mind-numbingly slow. There was insufficient groundwork laid for why Igor’s soul is so tortured and trying to explore those depths using only the singer’s facial and body movements without exposition or soliloquy was ineffective. Much of the acting felt like over-the-top histrionics. This may have played well in the back rows of the opera house but on the HD screen it looked like ‘Snidley Whiplash learns Russian’. It is quite possible that this production is the best way to present this opera. I can’t envision any circumstance where I might test that theory however.
*brooding and tedious