In February, the Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov produced a new staging of Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor at the Metropolitan Opera. It was last performed there in 1917, sung in Italian. The opera, which was left unfinished at the time of the composer’s sudden death while attending a military ball in 1887, is based on a twelfth-century Slavic epic, The Song of Igor’s Campaign, best known by the English-speaking world in a translation by Vladimir Nabokov. Borodin had left several plot points unresolved: What happens to the young lovers, for example? Other important events, including a major battle in which Igor suffers defeat and is taken captive, were left to the audience’s imagination. Because Borodin died before finishing most of the orchestrations, they were eventually provided by two of his friends, the composers Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov. As the musicologists Elena and Tatiana Vereschagina note in the Met program, there is no “authorized, definitive final version” of the opera. It is a jumble of unfinished ideas and marvelous music.
For his reconstruction, Tcherniakov rearranged the order of scenes, cut several passages—including Glazunov’s overture—and inserted music originally sketched by Borodin but never before integrated into the opera, with orchestrations by Pavel Smelkov, including a major new monologue for Igor. He also imagined a new, ambivalent ending, set to a passage from the opera-ballet Mlada, a significant departure from the rousing chorus that had previously closed the opera. It is a bold reappraisal of the work: what has traditionally been considered an “earnestly nationalist” opera whose overriding message was the “endorsement of Russia’s militaristic expansion,” according to the musicologist Richard Taruskin, has been recast as a more complicated piece about the internal struggles of an impotent and tormented hero, played here by the Russian bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov. The first image we see in this production is a projection of Igor’s face wearing an anxious expression, followed by the aphorism “To unleash a war is the surest way to escape from one’s self.” Perhaps Tcherniakov was thinking of George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq War; Vladimir Putin’s incursion into Crimea also comes to mind. Tcherniakov’s Igor is an antihero for our time.
Borodin’s opera is the story of a Slavic prince who goes off to fight a battle against a “barbaric” non-Christian neighbor, a Turkic tribe known as the Polovtsians (or, more often, as the Cumans), led by the cheerfully truculent Khan Konchak. By the second act—in Tcherniakov’s staging, it’s the second half of the first—Igor has suffered a brutal defeat and is being held prisoner in a Polovtsian encampment. His captor turns out to be a gracious host, offering friendship, rich cuisine and the company of wondrous, dark-eyed beauties in return for an alliance. “Like two panthers, we would prowl together [and] feed on the blood of our enemies,” he promises. Igor declines the offer, but the Khan seems unperturbed, good-naturedly inviting him to enjoy a brilliant spectacle by his side: “Bring the captive girls! Let them entertain us with their songs and dances!”
So begins one of the most famous dance suites—or divertissements—in opera: the “Polovtsian Dances,” introduced by a lilting, descending scale on the woodwinds, followed by the floating treble voices of women singing of a land beyond the Caspian Sea, where “the air is filled with languor,” the roses bloom, and the nightingales sing. Borodin’s exotic musical idiom in this scene, heavy with haunting melismas, was partly inspired by musicological sources like Alexandre Christianowitsch’s Esquisse historique de la musique arabe; but mostly, it was the product of his fanciful imagination. Taruskin has described the scene’s sinuous melodies as “the supreme musical expression of nega,” or “tender lassitude,” a characteristic of the exotic East that “emasculates, enslaves, renders passive,” the embodiment of “S-E-X à la russe.” In short, nineteenth-century Orientalism in all its shimmering, titillating glory.