Wednesday, 2 April 2014

**** Prince Igor - A spiritual Russian opera about war, dignity, sorrow and sexual divide - Review - London Coliseum - April 2014



 



You are in a history class when you watch ‘Prince Igor.’ Consider the current situation with President Putin and the diplomatic crisis. Before Crimea belonged to modern Ukraine its lands and borders, according to 'Prince Igor', were Russian, which proves that today's political upheaval is in fact an ongoing argument which spans from the 12th century. 


For the first time, Moscow's own Novaya Opera Company is currently performing, Alexander Borodin’s ‘Prince Igor' at the London Coliseum. It is based on a poem written anonymously named, ‘The Tale of Igor’s Campaign’ (1185 – 1187.) It tells the story of Prince Novgorod Seversky, Igor Svyatoshalvich and his defeated Russian army by the Polovtsy. Music Critic, V.V. Stasov encouraged Borodin, the chemist and music composer, to write an opera to which he thought was ‘terribly to his liking.’ Unfortunately, Borodin died before he could finish his masterpiece, which was completely by friends, Glazunov and Rimysky-Korsakov. It was first performed in 1890 at St. Petersburg.

Last night, the audience was drawn into another world, Prince Igor’s (Sergey Artamov) glorious Russia where religious omens and Christianity dominate. The opera is mythical and evidently spiritual not only from the music of Borodin and his choice of chorus but the many peculiar details that make a neatly choreographed performance from the peasants dances, standing formations and overall stage direction. A lingering 'old man' messiah that dwells on Igor's psyche also plays a big part. 

One would think the opera would hone in on royal Russian ambition, valour and honour but instead it is about a sad, despairing and anxious Prince who cries over the loss of his love and the fate of his people. Artamonov sung the beautiful aria, ‘Neither Sleep, nor rest for a tormented soul,’ which last night's captivated audience empathised with. Although, Artamonov did not sing as much as Elena Popovskaya, Prince Igor’s wife, Yaroslavna, there was an essence in his voice that identified a good and noble Prince dedicated to his country and proved to be an outstanding performance.

Popovskaya, was the sorrowful beating heart of the performance. She bestowed a strong spirited woman of Russia who even in the face of adversity stood unshaken. Yaroslavna who also suffers separation from her  Igor conveyed an unconditional love with 5 dancers behind a misty screen as she sung her aria ‘Oh, I weep’ in the final act. Popovskaya’s manages to create her own unique version of Yaroslavna and introduced an enthralling aria to add to any romantic's opera playlist. Prince Igor’s son, Vladimir (Aleksey Tatarintsev) and Konchak’s daughter, Konchakovna (Agunda Kulaeva) also give us a tasteful and passionate love duet to a starry sky in Act 2.


However, a big theme that may have caused grievance among feminists in the theatre was the misogyny and aggression towards women. The two traitors, and Gudok players, Skula (Anatoly Grigoriev) and Yeroshka (Maksim Ostroukhov) played an interesting duo as they dressed differently and sung differently which unfortunately made a bad pair of voices when it came to cheering on their debauched Prince, Galich (Dmitry Orlov.) Orlov gave a good impersonation and was not afraid to show us an alcoholic chauvinist who enjoyed kidnapping women and physically abusing them. This entailed the wine splashed on his face by Popovskaya after several attempts of making incestuous advances on her - his sister. 

Besides the mockery of women, there is another moral theme that overshadows the story, which includes Konchak (Vladimir Kudashev) kindness and warm welcoming to Prince Igor as a guest - not a captive. Despite friendship, peace and all niceties (fruits, hats, coats and women) offered, Igor still turns Konchak down adamant to conquer Polovtsy even if defeated. Yet Igor is a symbol of suffering and wallows over his present defeat and goes into a drunken frenzy as he collapses on the floor. On the opposing side, Kudashev who made his entrance via chariot and the shoulders of men sung with a presence deserving of lavish gold and black fur vestments like any successful Polovtsian king should. His people make a fuss over him as they dance and run around glorifying his name to the Polovtsian dance scene - an exciting form of divertissement that was the pièce de résistance of the evening.  Here his army of men gathered and jumped together in dark knight armor, his belly dancers were seductive, the veiled slave women were exotic and the entire stage raised their arms to praise him like a god.



With big brassy music including polovtsian traditional dance, period costumes and a large ensemble of 160 players, 120 chorus singers and 63 soloists, it would be a shame to miss out on this opera given that is rarely shown in the UK. Prince Igor is about the orient, the barbaric, the struggle of love and war. Yet there is also a historical sweet solitude encompassed in this Russian opera. The optimism shown through Borodin's romantic arias are breathtaking even if the opera is based on a gloomy war.

Yuri Alexandrov, producer of the opera wanted to focus on the spiritual aspects. He said: “Igor is a man who suffers and who, by suffering, atones for his sin. That is one of the most important ideas of the production. We have forgotten how to repent and acknowledge our mistakes.” The opera left the audience inspired last night. Some humming the chorus, 'Glory to the beautiful sun,’ as they exited the auditorium yet due to the deliberate removal of act 3 in most 'Prince Igor' performances, not just in Novaya Opera, the finale remains disappointing. What was the aftermath of Vladimir and Konkhan's daughter's relationship and what was Prince Galich's fate?  Many questions are left unanswered and it is perhaps the challenge of another production to step up and attempt to fill in the gaps.  

Hear 'Prince Igor' - Andjey Beletsky as Prince Igor - The Kolobov Novaya Opera Theatre of Moscow Russia