WASHINGTON, March 10, 2014 – In movie theaters here and elsewhere across the U.S., the “Met in HD” series of live opera telecasts has recently been on a roll, presenting excellent, virtually one-of-a-kind performances of two wonderful Slavic operas all-too-rarely seen by American audiences: Dvořák’s ravishingly beautiful Czech folk opera “Rusalka” and a completely re-imagined version of Borodin’s epic “Prince Igor.
The Dvořák opera, starring the incomparable soprano Renée Fleming in the title role, was a reprise of a Met production dating from the early 1990s, while the current production of “Igor” is totally new and marks the first time the Met has performed this Russian classic in a century.
In shimmering hues of watery green, the Met’s “Rusalka” revealed a wonderful, lush, deeply Romantic opera that simply cries out to be heard more often. In Czech-Bohemian folklore, a “rusalka” is actually regarded as a fairly malevolent spirit inhabiting the watery depths of rivers and streams, occasionally emerging to lure an unsuspecting human to his death in a watery grave.
In Dvořák’s operatic tale, the water-spirit we meet—exquisitely sung by Ms. Fleming—herself falls in love with a handsome Prince (Polish tenor Piotr Beczala) who longs for her as well. This is opera, however, and we’re right to suspect that things will end badly.
To survive in the human world, our “Rusalka” appeals to the legendary Czech witch Ježibaba—sung with glorious malice by mezzo Dolora Zajick—who agrees to help her out, but with a catch. Upon being made human, our water sprite will forever lose her voice. Worse, should her human love prove unrequited, she’s doomed to return to her watery realm forever cursed.
Of course, that’s precisely what happens in the opera. Making matters worse, Rusalka’s faithless Prince is ultimately doomed as well.
It’s a tragic story for sure, with a extra-added operatic frisson. During the key central portion of the opera, our heroine, now made human, can’t sing a note during her substantial time onstage. But not to worry. Ms. Fleming surprises by demonstrating her considerable acting chops as she silently portrays Rusalka’s increasing desperation as her frustrated Prince seeks out another.
Even better, Rusalka’s “silent act” is amply redeemed by Ms. Fleming in the first and the final portions of the opera. In the opening act, Ms. Fleming sings Dvořák’s gorgeous “Song of the Moon,” which, she reveals during an intermission interview, was one of her show-stopping signature arias early in her professional career. It still stops the show in this production.
As her cold-hearted but eventually repentant love interest, Mr. Beczala, whom we last enjoyed in the role of the hapless Lensky in the Met’s moving production of “Eugene Onegin” last fall, has much more to do here and makes the most of it, lifting his substantial and expressive tenor to join with Ms. Fleming in the composer’s passionate love music. Who could ask for more?
The Met is following this month with its brand new production of Borodin’s sweeping but problematic “Prince Igor,” which was beamed to theaters live this Saturday past and reprises in many of those same theaters Wednesday evening, March 5. Russia’s Ildar Abdrazakov stars in the title role in this story of a 12th century Russian Prince whose renowned military prowess proves no match for the armies of the wily Tatar warrior, Khan.
Most classical and opera audiences in the U.S. have never seen or heard a complete production of “Igor,” although even non-opera fans are often familiar with the opera’s wildly popular “Polovstian Dances,” which often appear on symphonic programs by themselves, with or without the glorious choral parts that are sung in the opera.
Aside from the seeming U.S. aversion toward performing Slavic operas with any regularity, “Igor” itself has a major performance problem—one it shares with a few other operas, notably including Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” and Puccini’s “Turandot.” In both cases, most notoriously in “Hoffmann,” the composers died before finishing these masterpieces, tragically leaving for others the task—always controversial—of completing the unfinished work.
Unique among first-tier composers, Alexander Borodin always regarded himself as a scientist first and foremost while considering musical composition to be a hobby. With an attitude like that, it’s astonishing that he was still able to compose a number of masterpieces that remain popular to this day. Including his opera, “Prince Igor,” more or less.
He labored on this work, off and on, for upward of 18 years, and had actually either completed or sketched much of its music when he died suddenly in his early 50s. Unfortunately, the opera’s structure remained fragmentary at best, much like a batch of potentially hit Broadway songs in search of a plot. Unable to bear the thought that “Igor” might never reach an audience, Borodin’s friends, Russian composers Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov shuffled the music into something resembling a patriotic plotline, occasionally penning new music of their own to fill in the gaps.
The result of their efforts was a grand opera that remains popular in Russia but not much performed in the West, known to U.S. audiences primarily through its famous “Polovstian Dances” sequence which is much performed—with or without its accompanying vocal chorus—by symphony orchestras.
With the musical assistance of Gianandrea Noseda, who conducted the Met in its recent HD broadcast of Igor, Russian producer/director Dmitri Tcherniakov undertook a bold reconstruction of Borodin’s epic opera, tossing out the bulk of the interpolated music, bringing back much of Borodin’s original music that had been cut in favor of developing the earlier plotline, and reassembling what was left into an intriguing chronology that focuses more on what goes on inside Prince Igor’s head rather than the minute details of historical events.What we end up with is not a “traditional” “Igor.” Instead, the opera is essentially re-imagined as a kind of frame tale, anchored by more or less historical events in the prologue and finale but with the rest of the story told in a chaotic flashback channeled through Igor’s hallucinatory nightmare.
“Prince Igor” is essentially a tragedy in which a heroic Russian general/prince chooses to take on the threatening forces of a barbarian Khan and his horde of marauding soldiers sweeping up from the south. Igor expects success in his expedition to stem this invading tide. But as he and his troops are about to depart, a solar eclipse darkens his palace and entourage, a discouraging omen that he fails to heed.
Divine intervention or no, Igor does not succeed, losing most of his troops and ending up, along with his son, as captive of the Khan. In this version of the opera, after a great deal of anguished soul-searching—complicated by a love subplot involving Igor’s son and the daughter of the Khan—Igor escapes and returns to his ruined city which he gamely chooses to rebuild.
Mr. Tcherniakov’s vision of “Igor” is a highly creative revamping of whatever it was that Borodin may actually have had in mind, turning an opera whose standard performing versions make room for patriotism and heroism into a bleak vision of war, conflict, and their tragic aftermath—including the different kind of heroism of a defeated leader who nonetheless chooses to rebuild again.
Although Tcherniakov certainly couldn’t have imagined the current turn of world events when he and Mr. Noseda assembled this new “Igor,” their much-altered story line inadvertently draws some parallels to the still-unfolding political and military disaster in the Ukraine, some of whose inhabitants, the Tatars, must have fought in and endured similar conflicts back in Igor’s time.
In any event, if you’re willing to go with it, Mr. Tcherniakov’s new “Igor” is a compelling take on the opera. Audiences may be disappointed to lose the popular overture, assembled at least in part via Glazunov’s remembering of Borodin’s piano performances of the same. They may also be a bit perplexed by this version’s take on the “Polovstian Dances,” which take place not at the Khan’s victory celebration but in a huge field of poppies as a ghostly dream sequence inside Igor’s head.
That said, the music, including items recently restored, is lovely. The Met orchestra, under Mr. Noseda’s inspired direction, performs this huge score superbly. And the opera’s Russian/Slavic cast proves nearly beyond compare, delivering a passionate and very Russian performance of this wonderful music.
Ildar Abdrazakov is absolutely stunning as Igor, both vocally and as a character actor. He’s also aided considerably by a first rate cast including Oksana Dyka as his long suffering wife Yaroslavna, Sergey Semishkur as his son Vladimir, Mikhail Petrenko as the evil Prince Galitsky, Štefan Kocán as Khan Konchak and the wonderful Anita Rachvelishvili as Vladimir’s love interest, Konchakovna.
The elaborate and no-doubt costly new sets for this production, also designed by Mr. Tcherniakov, put the “grand” back in grand opera, particularly that wild field of red poppies as well as the depressing, bombed out hulk of a palace that overwhelms the final scenes of devastation.
While it may take a bit of getting used to, the Met’s new version of Igor, as reimagined by Mssrs. Tcherniakov and Noseda, is a valid, intriguing, and above all challenging approach that may gain more traction for Borodin’s Russian operatic masterpiece, at least for those companies that can afford to stage this lavish 4-hour plus musical spectacle.
Next on tap for the Met in HD is a new and much-ballyhooed production of Massenet’s “Werther” which will hit the cinema this weekend. Virtual curtain time is 12:55 p.m. EST, Saturday March 15 at your local participating theater. Visit the Met’s website for ticket prices and to access lists of local participating theaters near you.
“Rusalka”: **** (4 out of 4 stars)
“Prince Igor”: **** (4 out of 4 stars)