You are in a history class when you watch ‘Prince Igor.’ Consider the current situation with President Putin and the diplomatic crisis. Before Crimea belonged to modern Ukraine its lands and borders, according to ‘Prince Igor’, were Russian, which proves that today’s political upheaval is in fact an ongoing argument which spans from the 12thcentury.
For the first time, Moscow’s own Novaya Opera Company is currently performing, Alexander Borodin’s ‘Prince Igor’ at the London Coliseum. It is based on a poem written anonymously named, ‘The Tale of Igor’s Campaign’ (1185 – 1187.) It tells the story of Prince Novgorod Seversky, Igor Svyatoshalvich and his defeated Russian army by the Polovtsy. Music Critic, V.V. Stasov encouraged Borodin, the chemist and music composer, to write an opera to which he thought was ‘terribly to his liking.’ Unfortunately, Borodin died before he could finish his masterpiece, which was completely by friends, Glazunov and Rimysky-Korsakov. It was first performed in 1890 at St. Petersburg.
Last night, the audience was drawn into another world, Prince Igor’s (Sergey Artamov) glorious Russia where religious omens and Christianity dominate. The opera is mythical and evidently spiritual not only from the music of Borodin and his choice of chorus but the many peculiar details that make a neatly choreographed performance from the peasants dances, standing formations and overall stage direction. A lingering ‘old man’ messiah that dwells on Igor’s psyche also plays a big part.
One would think the opera would hone in on royal Russian ambition, valour and honour but instead it is about a sad, despairing and anxious Prince who cries over the loss of his love and the fate of his people. Artamonov sung the beautiful aria, ‘Neither Sleep, nor rest for a tormented soul,’ which last night’s captivated audience empathised with. Although, Artamonov did not sing as much as Elena Popovskaya, Prince Igor’s wife, Yaroslavna, there was an essence in his voice that identified a good and noble Prince dedicated to his country and proved to be an outstanding performance.
Popovskaya, was the sorrowful beating heart of the performance. She bestowed a strong spirited woman of Russia who even in the face of adversity stood unshaken. Yaroslavna who also suffers separation from her Igor conveyed an unconditional love with 5 dancers behind a misty screen as she sung her aria ‘Oh, I weep’ in the final act. Popovskaya’s manages to create her own unique version of Yaroslavna and introduced an enthralling aria to add to any romantic’s opera playlist. Prince Igor’s son, Vladimir (Aleksey Tatarintsev) and Konchak’s daughter, Konchakovna (Agunda Kulaeva) also give us a tasteful and passionate love duet to a starry sky in Act 2.
With big brassy music including polovtsian traditional dance, period costumes and a large ensemble of 160 players, 120 chorus singers and 63 soloists, it would be a shame to miss out on this opera given that is rarely shown in the UK. Prince Igor is about the orient, the barbaric, the struggle of love and war. Yet there is also a historical sweet solitude encompassed in this Russian opera. The optimism shown through Borodin’s romantic arias are breathtaking even if the opera is based on a gloomy war.
Yuri Alexandrov, producer of the opera wanted to focus on the spiritual aspects. He said: “Igor is a man who suffers and who, by suffering, atones for his sin. That is one of the most important ideas of the production. We have forgotten how to repent and acknowledge our mistakes.” The opera left the audience inspired last night. Some humming the chorus, ‘Glory to the beautiful sun,’ as they exited the auditorium yet due to the deliberate removal of act 3 in most ‘Prince Igor’ performances, not just in Novaya Opera, the finale remains disappointing. What was the aftermath of Vladimir and Konkhan’s daughter’s relationship and what was Prince Galich’s fate? Many questions are left unanswered and it is perhaps the challenge of another production to step up and attempt to fill in the gaps.