Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Igor in the Poppy Fields (with PTSD)

Borodin’s Prince Igor
Met - February 21, 2014

Prince Igor prepares for war with the Polovstians.
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Whose Prince Igor is it? Is it even Prince Igor anymore? Where does one draw the line when directorial cuts and additions, score rearrangements and libretto departures transform an opera into something radically different from the "original"? Borodin's libretto is extremely rich and goes in so many directions that at times it’s hard to really pin down a cohesive narrative thread. The fragmentary nature of the opera explains why every production of Prince Igor constitutes a departure from Borodin’s intentions, including the opera’s 1890 debut that featured the posthumous composition and rearrangement of large portions of the work by two other composers (Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov).

Lui: Director Dmitri Tcherniakov claimed that with this production he intended to return to the source material and restore Prince Igor “as Borodin left it,” which is somehow ironic because at the end of the day the Met's new production is a unique and original take on a visionary yet still fragmentary score. It was most successful in its oneiric transitions between the first two scenes of Act I. Prince Igor's Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the aftermath of the battle finds us slipping in and out of consciousness with the injured prince after his army has been defeated and he and his son have ended up prisoners of the Polovtsian tribe they had attacked. Switching between projections onto a huge diaphanous screen at the front of the stage and peering through it at the action played out behind it in a spectacularly beautiful field of poppies, we struggle to make sense out of things right along with the wounded prince as he begins to pick up the pieces of what is left after his calamitous, hubristic fall. I've never seen anything so dreamy on the stage before. It was wildly effective, although if you don't know the story there was little in these directorial decisions that helped to clarify the plot. To me that was the beauty of it.

Nymphs frolic in Prince Igor's field of joy.
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Beautiful, yes, but does it work with Borodin's libretto? Or is the director just telling his own story? Why is Igor so happy in the poppy field with the nymphs dancing and singing beautifully around him about how great the Khan is? Does he think he's the Khan they're talking about? Or does he really like the music? Or the poppies? The Met's synopsis says that in this scene Igor "has a vision of the overwhelming joy of living life to its fullest." I may be too literal, but according to the libretto and the score here Igor is a captive prisoner assisting the display of power of the Khan who defeated him in battle and is now rubbing in how great he is and how sexy his beautiful dancers are. Maybe here Tcherniakov's Igor is just tripping out due to the effects of PTSD and imagining happy things. It was really a pleasure to watch, just a lot of freestyling with respect to what was being sung.

Lui: The dancers slowly emerge out of the tall grasses and poppies and dance around him like woodland nymphs, more in a hippy-happy apotheosis of joy and exaltation than the eroto-martial glorification of the greatness of the Khan that the score and the text suggest. The whole sequence in Tcherniakov's vision represents a powerful awakening for the Prince as he begins to come to terms with his new reality. Only in this take on the famous dance does he seem to glimpse a new joyous freedom, in the wake of his trauma, disgrace and defeat. Unlike the mighty Greek hero Ajax, whose madness in the aftermath of war takes over and eventually precipitates a tragic suicidal end, Prince Igor is slowly set on his road to recovery. And it begins, in this rendition, with some serious tripped-out introspection. Where does one find the strength to get back on the horse once you've fallen off. How does one go about picking up where you left off. The end then takes us to a particularly startling resolution of these questions.

The vaguely medieval meeting hall in Igor's native Putivl.
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Compared to the extraordinary visual effects of the poppy field scenes, the barren interior of the vaguely medieval hall used in the Prologue and Act II was far less visually engaging and also did not really work for the eclipse episode that in other productions can be so spectacular (think the 2013 Bolschoi production). Putting aside the visual thrill, it was surprising that the key narrative moment of the eclipse was so understated – it being the bad omen Igor in his hubris decides to ignore when he goes to war leading his troops into disaster. Act III was a more dynamic yet depressing assembly of war-zone debris and fires, looking uncomfortably contemporary like images coming out of Ukraine these days.

Vladimir and Konchakovna's oneiric Act III flashback.
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera 
Lui: It would have been great if the production could have maintained its initial oneiric quality, but techniques of this sort really only returned toward the end when, in a daring flashback interpolation, the Prince and his son stage their escape together and we get to glimpse the pain Vladimir experiences when he is forced to separate from the princess Konchakovna, with whom he had fallen in love during their time in the Khan's captivity.

Lei: Bass Ildar Abdrazakov was a great Prince Igor, owning the character in all of its nuances and delivering consistently powerful, deep and smooth singing. Abdrazakov is highly charismatic and a great actor, particularly effective in rendering Tcherniakov’s introspective tormented take on the prince. However, I wish his character had more singing time. It is a good thing that this production chose to reinsert a long Prince Igor monologue in Act III so we could hear more Abdrazakov.

Yaroslavna and Prince Galitsky duke it out.
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
Soprano Oksana Dyka as Igor’s wife, Yaroslavna, had the most stage time and more singing than anybody else. She really carried entire portions of Acts II and III. She was consistently solid, piercingly clear and powerful though she did not display many nuances or earth-shaking passion. Though this may have something to do with Tcherniakov's take on their relationship. In his version, she is the Penelope under whom Igor's reign fell into ruin. Upon Igor's return she is the last person he wants to see. Rather than reunite, he is so self-absorbed in his disillusionment that he does everything but spit on her.

Tenor Sergey Semishkur and mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili portrayed the young rebellious lovers in the sub-plot tryst between Igor's son Vladimir and the Khan's daughter Konchakovna. Semishkur sounded too weak and shrill and was not a very convincing young ardent lover. It seems like the current famine of good tenors has spread to the Russians too. On the other hand, Rachvelishvili's singing was fiery, fluid and passionate. Her acting was particularly impressive in Act III, when she quickly covered half of the stage on her knees running after Vladimir all while lyrically imploring him not to go.

Prince Galitsky is a terrific villain role: he abducts and deflowers young maidens, attempts a coup d'etat, ingratiates his subjects with free booze, betrays Igor's trust and generally wines and dines all night long with his raucous crowd of Rigolettian courtiers. Mikhail Petrenko had great stage presence, displaying Galitsky's schemings and wrongdoings with energetic defiant swagger, but unfortunately his singing did not match such accurate acting. His delivery was so weak it was hard to even hear him, and generally lacked the expressiveness this role demands.

Khan Konchak extends his hospitality to Prince Igor.
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
I am usually a big fan of bass Stefan Kocán but was underwhelmed by his portrayal of Khan Konchak who came across a bit stiff, not fully conveying the buoyant power of the character. I hope Kocan will be able to grow in this role with the kind of confident fluidity we saw him exhibit as Gremin and Sparafucile earlier this year. Also, I was not very convinced by the choice to make him an ugly, old, bald general sporting an absurd, yellow, nineteenth-century military uniform – Kocan’s natural slavic charms could have been used so much better to portray the exotic and powerful Khan.

According to a Belarusian friend who caught the opera with us, true Russian opera is more about the collective than the individual, and the collective was indeed the real star of the night. The Met Orchestra lead by Pavel Smelkov and the massive magnificent choruses delivered the most beautifully intense musical moments of the entire performance. I'm not sure what happened to Gianandrea Noseda. I was looking forward to an Italian conducting this Russian masterpiece that he also helped arrange for this production, though it seems like he will be conducting the rest of Prince Igor's run.

The defeated anti-hero comes home.
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
The directorial choices for the finale were terrific, completely overturning what is done in more standard productions. Usually, Prince Igor is the defeated anti-hero who caused his people’s ruin and is saluted as a savior and an inspiration in an uplifting display of Russian nationalism. In Tcherniakov’s version, there is an added bit during which Igor, rightly uncomfortable with the celebrations, rings a makeshift bell and starts literally picking up the pieces of his devastated town and putting them back together, one by one, inspiring his countrymen to do the same without any fanfare. It’s not about glorious blazing victory, but rather acknowledging failures and mistakes: putting one’s head down and pushing through to start anew. Tcherniakov's take really emphasizes Igor's individual perspective by showing a glimpse of a sequel and making him a more credible hero as a man who has only just begun the process of resurrection after his defeat. The fact that the music accompanying such a dramatically idiosyncratic finale was taken from another Borodin composition that had nothing to do with the opera is not an insignificant detail. Nevertheless, while it was definitely not part of Borodin’s “original” vision, Tcherniakov's ending was highly tragic, human and real.

The sullen finale.
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
Lui: The questions still stands. Whose Prince Igor is it? No matter where you draw the line, to say that Tcherniakov overstepped it is an understatement. After all, he took wild liberties not only with his staging, but also and more importantly with the libretto and score. During the Polovtsian dances, for example, they just as well could have sung the phone book in Cantonese, considering how little the action on stage corresponded with the breathtaking choral parts. In the final scene, the director moved to the Act I poppy field the husband-and-wife reunion duet and replaced it with a Borodin number that was not even composed for this opera. And so, this particular production is not necessarily Alexander Borodin's Prince Igor, but Dmitri Tcherniakov's. Regardless of how close an approximation he and his collaborators attempted to make of the original score, Tcherniakov made this one his own different (albeit beautiful) animal.

Against all odds, Igor "living life to its fullest."
Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich/New York Times

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