In this Russian historic opera, timing is everything

Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera

A scene from Act I of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Borodin’s “Prince Igor” with Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor Svyatoslavich.

By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald

Someone, someday, may compose an opera about the struggle between Russia and Ukraine taking place right now. We’re all holding our breaths to see what happens.

For 18 years, Alexander Borodin worked on an opera about another crucial period in Russian history – the 12th century. Fraught with tension and uncertainty, the story centers on the Russian Prince Igor and his campaign against invading armies. Ironically, Borodin sought out the medieval Kievan chronicles as his major source material.

Current history connects us to Saturday’s MET Live in HD performance of “Prince Igor” – political upheaval, then and now.

Borodin started his only opera in 1869. He worked on it on and off for almost two decades. When he died in 1887, he left it unfinished. A chemist by trade, he simply got sidetracked. But in 1874, the success of other history-based operas, such as Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov,” inspired him to plunge back into the project.

Borodin conceived of a four-act opera with a prologue to set the historical frame. When he died, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov gathered up the his colleague’s scores and completed “Prince Igor” with his best student, Alexander Glazunov. They organized a first performance in October 1890 and the official world premiere Nov. 4 in St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater.

The opera centers on the story of Prince Igor Sviatoslavich and his efforts to save the city of Putivl from the marauding Tatar tribe of Polovitsi. The Prologue focuses on war preparations, and a mysterious solar eclipse portends doom.

Act I begins after the Russian defeat. Igor and his son, Vladimir, are prisoners. The Polovtsi leader, Khan Konchak, stages a lavish entertainment for his royal guests. This is where the famous Polovtsian Dances occur, with lush music incorporating folk tunes from the Caucasus. Borodin studied Turkish folk music to come up with a seductive mix of styles. If you’ve seen the American musical “Kismet,” you’ll recognize the tunes.

After all that court splendor, Khan offers Igor freedom if he will in effect surrender. The Prince, of course, refuses and miraculously escapes. Vladimir is left behind and falls in love with Khan’s daughter. Forget history, this is the land of epic poetry and opera.

Act II takes place back at Igor’s palace where the Prince’s brother-in-law, Galitsky, has assumed power. News of Igor’s defeat arrives, and Galitsky plots to make himself the new prince. Good luck – because the Polovtsians are at the gate.

Act IV takes place after Putivl has fallen. Citizens mournfully join in song and Yaroslavna, Igor’s wife, laments the loss of her husband.

When Igor miraculously arrives, he is filled with regret and guilt. His wife and his people greet him, but the country is in ruins.

The new MET production has been reconceived by Russian Director Dmitri Tcherniakov. He has rearranged some scenes to make narrative flow smoother, and most interestingly, removed the melodies added by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. Borodin’s original orchestrations have been recaptured. Tcherniakov has also designed new sets keeping a traditional feel with a contemporary twist.

Excerpts were played during the opening ceremonies at the Sochi Olympics.

“Prince Igor” will be sung in Russian with English surtitles. The opera runs four hours and 30 minutes, hence the earlier start time of 10 a.m. Bring a thermos of Russian tea to help you go the distance. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.

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