Even when the opera performed is a masterpiece, a truly superb opera performance is exceedingly rare. The Met, one of the world’s most prolific opera houses, manages perhaps once per season to spark the kind of ecstatic, heart-pounding response the form has the potential to deliver. There was Parsifal last year, La traviata a couple of years before that and way back in 2009 From the House of the Dead, great material done justice in production and performance.
So it’s all the more remarkable that Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor, an uneven, fragmentary work, should yield a performance that ranks with the highest peaks of Peter Gelb’s incumbency at the Met and for that matter would be the jewel of any opera company in any golden age. Opera audiences are resigned to slogging through dreck; this Igor makes the slog worthwhile.
Borodin labored on this opera for almost 18 years, stymied by the essentially undramatic quality of his source material, a 12th-century epic poem called “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign.” By the time of his sudden death in 1887, he had composed more than three hours of music but left no finished libretto, only a vague scenario. The younger composers Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov edited the work, adding a few numbers of their own devising to bridge the gaps, for the world premiere in 1890 in St. Petersburg.
It was in a version of this hybrid edition that Prince Igor first arrived at the Met in 1915—in Italian!—and even then, critics and audiences were puzzled by the disconnect between the rapturous, romantic musical numbers and the static plot. (The music is so strong, in fact, that it’s most familiar out of the context of the opera. Broadway tunesmiths Robert Wright and George Forrest adapted Borodin’s themes into the score of the 1953 musical Kismet, including the ballad “Stranger in Paradise.”)
The story is based on an episode from the life of a real Prince Igor, who ruled the early Russian city of Putivl in what is now northern Ukraine. In a campaign against the invading Polovtsian nomadic tribe, Igor is defeated and captured. Meanwhile, his brother-in-law, Galitzky, attempts to seize control of the realm from Igor’s wife, Yaroslavna. Igor escapes and returns home to reassert his authority, and his subjects greet him joyously.
The Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov, making his Met debut with this production, has delved beneath this pageant-like scenario to uncover a gripping psychological study of a man of action whose unimaginable defeat plunges him into an emotional and moral crisis. In collaboration with conductor Gianandrea Noseda, Mr. Tcherniakov has altered the traditional order of the scenes and discarded the Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov interpolations, shifting the focus from the political (i.e., Russian nationalism) to the intensely personal.
Mr. Tcherniakov updates the action to early 20th-century Russia, with the prologue scene of the gathering of the army set in a towering public space with buff-colored plaster walls and giant suspended lighting fixtures. As Igor marches off to war, a screen descends to display video the director created for this production. In grainy black-and-white images recalling Sergei Eisenstein, Igor’s troops are massacred, and the prince collapses with a bleeding head wound. Incongruously, these violent scenes take place to a seductive song wafting from offstage, until suddenly a new setting shimmers into view on the screen: a vast field of poppies against a cloudless blue sky. This is Igor’s dream as he hovers between life and death.
What follows is the “Polovtsian act,” in which Igor is tempted by his captor Khan Konchak to embrace the hedonistic “Eastern” lifestyle of his tribe. In Mr. Tcherniakov’s vision, though, Polovtsia is not a place but a state of mind, an alternative to the militaristic life Igor has known until his traumatic injury. Judging by the pale makeup, filmy garments and dreamy movement of the dancers in the Polovtsian ballet, this land to which Igor longs to escape may even be Death. (If that’s true, let’s hope the afterlife is more interesting than Itzik Galili’s Jazzercise choreography, the production’s only real flaw.)
Eventually, Igor, Ulysses-like, returns to his ravaged Putivl, where he is welcomed by an exultant chorus. But instead of leaving the prince basking in his subjects’ praise, Mr. Tcherniakov shows us a changed man, humbled but at peace. To surging, transcendent music interpolated from the ballet Mlada, Igor leads his people in the rebuilding of their city.
Both here and in the more conventional second act—the scenes of Galitzky’s rebellion—the director lavishes a wealth of subtle, almost subliminal detail: tiny gestures, almost imperceptible shifts of light and constant interwoven movement by a stage full of chorus and extras. It adds up to an experience that is almost as demanding on the audience as it is on the performers—but one that is as rewarding as it is demanding.
If this were only the Dmitri Tcherniakov show, it would still be worth seeing, but fortunately his collaborator rose to his exalted level. Mr. Noseda’s conducting had a warm romantic sweep that brings out the grandeur in Borodin’s melodies, and he tactfully muted the occasional tinselly moments in the orchestration.
In the title role, Ildar Abdrazakov hurled his dark bass-baritone into Igor’s soul-searching arias, the warm, lyrical tone suggesting the proud prince’s underlying vulnerability. Though debuting soprano Oksana Dyka’s unvarying brightness of timbre robbed Yaroslavna’s famous lament of vocal glamour, she commanded respect in her ferocious defiance of Galitzky.
Another debuting artist, Sergey Semishkur, brought a honeyed tenor and iridescent top notes to the character of Igor’s son, Vladimir. As his lover, Konchakovna, mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili sang her yearning cavatina in chest tones as dark and sensuous as her flowing mane of raven hair. Mikhail Petrenko’s snarling Galitzky rather outshone Stefan Kocán’s hoarse turn as Khan Konchak.
As for the Met chorus, these singers are superhuman: From the great warlike cries in the prologue to the seductive melismas of the Polovtsian ballet, they delivered this music as easily and boldly as if this operatic rarity were Aida or Carmen. And no matter how tricky the Russian consonants, they never missed an acting beat either.
After so overwhelming an experience as this Prince Igor, even so flawlessly professional a production as the Glyndebourne Festival’s Billy Budd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music felt a little ordinary. It’s not quite fair, because the staging by Michael Grandage was compact and precise, telling Benjamin Britten’s seagoing parable of good and evil clearly and unsentimentally, and Mark Elder’s fluent conducting highlighted the subtle beauty of the melancholy orchestration.
The cast, all male voices, was consistently fine, though baritone Jacques Imbrailo neither looked nor sounded the “Beauty” the other sailors nickname the hero Billy. Brindley Sherratt’s flinty bass hinted at depths in the villainous Claggart he never explored in his one-dimensional acting, and tenor Mark Padmore oversang and twitched as an unusually unsympathetic Captain Vere.
More interesting singers lurked farther down the cast list. Stephen Gadd’s smoky baritone made Mr. Redburn practically the most interesting character onstage, and Duncan Rock, also a baritone, turned his little scene as the Novice’s Friend into the emotional core of the first act.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of the night was the sheer crispness of every element of this performance: Diction, movement, choral singing, the playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, even the small shifts of Christopher Oram’s looming unit set all crackled with precision.
If anything, this Billy Budd was a bit too neat, too ready to supply easy answers. It felt a little pat after Prince Igor, which posed questions I’m still pondering.