Borodin, Prince Igor

Final opera in my weekend at the Mariinsky: Borodin’s Prince Igor.  Like Mazeppa last night, this was yet another production where they dusted off sets originally designed in the 1950s (although not a revival of the old production; more on that below).  The painted canvas sets once again provided traditional backdrops, which allowed the cast to act.  And act they did.

As Prince Igor, Nikolai Putilin gave an outstanding performance, portraying Igor as a dark and brooding character who nevertheless evoked great sympathy and energy.  As Khan Konchak, the opera’s supposed villain, Sergei Aleksashkin displayed a clear humanity and likability in his context.  As a foil, the hard-partying Vladimir Galitsky, Igor’s brother-in-law, was portrayed by Alexei Tanovitsky, who had a booming voice to make his character lively and utterly despicable.  Bravo for the Mariinsky’s basses.

In other supporting roles, Oleg Sychev and Vladimir Zhivopistsev made rousing and humorous comrades-in-crime in the foil roles of Skula and Yeroshka.  Stanislav Leontievmade his Mariinsky debut as Igor’s son Vladimir, and paired nicely with Natalia Yevstafieva, singing Konchakovna, Konchak’s daughter and Vladimir’s betrothed.  Only Larisa Gogolevskaya, as Igor’s wife Yarolsavna, disappointed – probably about 40 years old in the plot, she came across as an ancient hag, and her voice was well past its retirement date – still rather pleasant in the lower registers, but shrieking and screaming in the upper.

Boris Gruzin conducted in a way which generally allowed everyone to get on with it, but his orchestral passages were too fast and did not draw out the harmonies enough.  The only orchestral musician to get a special mention in the program, Anatoly Chepkov, the principal french hornist with lots of exposed parts, probably wishes he had remained anonymous: this was a serious off-night for him (although the rest of the orchestra sounded fine).

As for the production, the Mariinsky used a non-standard performing version.  When Borodin died, he left this opera unfinished and in a state of complete chaos.  He was only a part-time composer, so had worked on it sporadically and in no particular order.  He was also writing the libretto, but instead of sketching it out in advance, he was writing it together with and often after writing music.  He had made no plot summary, nor had he even determined what he might set and in what order.  It was left to his friends Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Aleksandr Glazunov to construct a performing version from this mess.  And while there can be (and indeed has been) reasonable discussion about whether they succeeded (and also about how much of the final version was actually written by Glazunov instead of Borodin), which has resulted in various other editions and performing versions over the years, at least Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov did manage to create a coherent drama.  I am not at all sure what the people at the Mariinsky were thinking with tonight’s performing version (the program did not credit an editor, nor provide any program notes at all to explain the choices made).  The scenes were shuffled from the standard performing version, seemingly ordered entirely at random, and did not form a coherent plot (the logical conclusion from the staged order was that the same battle was fought twice, possibly years apart, and that cities which had been burned down and populations killed or taken prisoner had suddenly risen again from their ashes with their people miraculously returned).  The jumps also made everything very disjointed.

As a result, this performing version, taken as a whole, was a dramatic failure.  Each scene taken individually was a dramatic success.

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