BASS TONES: Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role in Prince Igor.


DIRECTOR & SET DESIGN: Dmitri Tcherniakov

CONDUCTOR: Gianandrea Noseda

CAST: Ildar Abdrazakov, Oksana Dyka, Anita Rachvelishvili, Sergey Semishkur, Mikhail Petrenko, Stefan Kocán

COSTUMES: Elena Zaitseva

LIGHTING: Gleb Filshtinsky

RUNNING TIME: 289 minutes

RATING: ****

“To unleash a war is the surest way to escape from yourself.” This unidentified quote is shown on the screen right in the beginning of this new production of Alexander Borodin’s epic opera Prince Igor – the first one in the Metropolitan Opera’s history in almost 100 years.

To make sense of Borodin’s singular opera has been a quest that is not, as yet, completed. He left it incomplete at his deathbed. His colleagues, the composers Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov, tried to make sense of fractured details which were left in shambles, fleshing out scenes and making sense out of inconclusive segments.

At the end, although still fragmented, it became at least musically a reasonably coherent piece of stage drama, although the plot still had as many holes as Swiss emmentaler cheese.

Prince Igor is, alas, still flawed, while ironically hordes of people who can whistle its tunes have never seen it.

Dmitri Tcherniakov, the Russian director and designer, has done his level best to let this medieval epic, originally known as The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, mean something for 21st century audiences.

He achieves this by not constantly telling the story in a literal sense, but also creating dream sequences in a massive poppy field (Act 2), while using film to address specific subtexts, like the horrors of war and the effect it has on suffering soldiers.

In his quest he also fleshed out the main characters by juxta-posing their inner worlds with their outward appearances to finally enliven both their emotional and day-to-day lives. In these personae we already find the basic characteristics of what would later become the Russian consciousness and their cultural emergence.

What is fascinating is that Borodin wasn’t really influenced by the operatic conventions of his day, but followed his own instincts.

In the culture clash between Igor’s spiritually driven ideals to protect his people, representing Mother Russia, against the constant threat of Khan Konchak’s entourage of Central Asian Polovtsian tribes, the composer was inspired to contrast the music representing them.

His Russian music is rather stern and traditional, while those parts representing the pagan joys is exotic and pulsating.

The strength of this production is no doubt as strongly achieved in the hands of conductor Gianandrea Noseda as it is in Tcharniakov’s unerring depiction of not only the cultural clash, but also the effect it has on the main protagonists.

Noseda’s conducting is cogently limned. He distinguishes strongly between different moods and milieux, while bringing out the epic nature of the writing, with the Met chorus and orchestra responding accordingly.

With a cast of mainly Russian and East-European singers, the vocal all-embracing characterisation and colouring stands out as being thoroughly authentic.

Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role is initially a proud and determined Igor, with resonant, firm, incisively enunciated bass tones to fill the part.

He is an apt foil to his wife’s eloquence.

In her role the soprano Oksana Dyka stands out for her all-embracing characterisation of the dignified, vulnerable and sad heroine, Yaroslavna.

The conviction of her acting and singing – the latter eloquently accented, lustrous, long-breathed and constantly moving – is engaging and often rivetting.

Anita Rachvelishvili has the vibrant, dark-hued timbre of the best of her kind. With her mezzo voice she vamped Kontchakovna’s sensual utterances with ease.

Stefan Kocán (bass) as Khan Konchak catches to perfection his blend of brutality and generosity, sumptuously sung.

Mikhail Petrenko’s lecherous, insistent Prince Galitsky is no less outstanding. All the other roles are executed with the same levels of exacting detail – vocally and dramatically.

Prince Igor is worth seeing for anyone who wants to expand their operatic horizons.

• Screening for one weeK only at Cinema Nouveau theatres and selected Ster-Kinekor theatres.