Borodin, Prince Igor

I got a late ticket for opening night of the 2011-12 season at the Novaya Opera: a new production of Borodin’Prince Igor.  Judging by the look of the men sitting around me, I think my seat was in the section normally set aside for bodyguards.  I looked very out of place among this group of overly-stiff thugs, who all looked miserable having to attend an opera, but who at least remained attentive (with shifty eyes) and did not speak at all (actually, they did not even move at all, except to look at their watches).  I guess someone brought one fewer bodyguard than usual, so I got the seat.  I also suppose that some VIP(s) left at intermission, because most of my row did not return for the second half.

The performance met the standard I have come to expect from the Novaya.  Music Director Yevgeny Samoilov led a well-paced musical production.  The cast – made up of the Novaya’s ensemble – sounded uniformly good.  Sergey Artomonov stood out with his noble portrayal of the title role.  Yelena Popovskaya, as Igor’s wife Yaroslavna, warbled at first (to such an extent that she visibly reacted with disgust at her own voice when she first opened her mouth) but managed to calm her vocal chords down as the night went on, so that her long lament in the final scene (of this setting) came across as moving and haunting.  Vitaly Efanov, who sang Khan Konchak, was obviously an audience favorite and had a tremendous stage presence, but his voice sounded a tad tired tonight.

As I noted when I saw this opera at the Mariinsky in July, no definitive version of Prince Igor exists – not even the exact plot – as Borodin left everything in chaos when he died.  The Novaya used a more-standard performing version than the Mariinsky.  Although edited, this version captured the drama far more convincingly than the Mariinsky’s confused plot line.  That said, the Mariinsky’s staging was far more effective, mostly because of over-active stage direction at the Novaya rather than a poor concept.  The scenery tonight was, in fact, generally acceptable.  For the first half of tonight’s staging at the Novaya provided a traditional-looking backdrop, with run-down city walls and a gate representing the decayed and impoverished state of mediaeval Russia.  This backdrop remained throughout most of the opera, with only the props and lighting changing to convey the different scenes.  On the whole, though, this worked.  The final scene was set on a cloudy wasteland, representing Russia destroyed after the Polovtsian raids. Only the scene set in the Polovtsian camp came across as odd, consisting of a bunch of jewel-encrusted war tents with shifting multi-colored lighting inside which made the whole camp look like a crashed UFO.

The main problem with this staging, however, came from the hyper-active method acting the director required.  This bordered on the melodramatic most of the time, but often even crossed that line.  The young women of Putivl were forced to contort themselves in especially bizarre ways (which must have also made it difficult to sing properly, although they somehow sounded good).  During the first scene, the emphasis the director placed on the impoverished miserable citizens of Putivl being brutalized by soldiers distracted from the characters actually singing.  The furthest the director crossed the line came in the dialogue between Yaroslavna and her brother Vladimir Galitsky, when he started fondling her – Galitsky is an unsavory character, but this went too far even for him.

Still, over all, the production made a good impression, mostly for its overall musical integrity.

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