Among operagoers, Prince Igor is one of those titles that you're sure you know. Orchestral excerpts turn up in light symphonic music. Aleksandr Borodin tunes adapted into pop songs for the musical Kismet long ago achieved elevator-music status. The plot about noble Russians battling Polovtsian invaders is business-as-usual in medieval Russia.
Yet the Metropolitan Opera HD simulcast at noon Saturday (encore presentation 6:30 p.m. Wednesday) at six area theaters is only the company's second-ever production. Even those who have seen Prince Igor elsewhere will find the musical landscape significantly altered here, in a production that's no typical walk through Russian history. After the prologue, characters wander about in a field of poppies (with allusions owing more to World War I than The Wizard of Oz), and the title character's psyche is examined through black-and-white film footage projected onstage.
Well, OK. Prince Igor has never existed in any definitive form, having been abandoned by Borodin for years at a time, then finished by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov after his death.
Somewhat quixotically, the Met production's stage director, Dmitri Tcherniakov, and conductor Gianandrea Noseda have purged the opera of music not written by Borodin in the hope that his original vision will emerge.
Question is, did he have one? And is there enough opera to tell what it was?
A director of Tcherniakov's wizardry stands a chance of making the opera's holes seem less gaping, particularly in this era of high-concept productions in which linear storytelling isn't such a priority. In its place is the title character's psychological probing, the tone set in early scenes by Tcherniakov's taste for beginning with written aphorisms projected onto the set. Example: We're told Igor's fatal decision to go to battle while seriously outnumbered was about escaping his uninteresting domestic life. That sets up the much-later final act as a study in atonement. But you still have to get through Act I, which is fitful, uneven, and lacking operatic sweep.
Beyond that, though, the opera is unquestionably full of greatly effective music, some left out of previous editions. The production isn't above blatant theatricality, particularly in the pyrotechnics used when Igor's village is under siege. Ultimately, the drama here is not about Prince Igor escaping his captors but about the considerable resources of the Met wrestling the opera into viability.
It's a fascinating semi-successful odyssey, with some excellent singing along the way. As Igor, Ildar Abdrazakov is a break from less-precise Russian bass singing of past generations, which suits the sort of dramaturgical detail of this production. From there, the opera has an engaging vocal gallery of characterizations: Mikhail Petrenko is Prince Igor's dissolute evil twin; Stefan Kocan is the conciliatory Khan Konchak; while the two princesses are well accounted for by Anita Rachveltshvili on the Polovtsian side and Oksana Dyka as Igor's wife.
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