Culture Magazine

Of Princes and Potentates — The Met Opera Presents Borodin’s ‘Prince Igor’ and Verdi’s ‘Don Carlos’ (Part One)

By Josmar16 @ReviewsByJosmar

When artists of the highest caliber are called upon to make what amounts to career-killing choices by the companies that employ them, we, the listening and viewing public, are the ones who lose out.

This was the case when, because of one world leader's spiteful, ill-conceived commitment to all-out combat against a smaller neighbor (i.e., the Russian Federation versus the Ukraine), the likes of star soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev - two so-called "Friends of Vlad," aka Russian President Vladimir Putin - have been relegated to the sidelines as far as future performances are concerned.

In Ms. Netrebko's case, the diva had been scheduled to sing in Puccini's Turandot later this Met Opera season, as well as make concert appearances in Denmark and other venues. With maestro Gergiev, he too was forced to cancel planned recitals at Carnegie Hall with the Mariinsky Orchestra, among others. On the heels of which the Metropolitan Opera House issued a statement in early March whereby it was severing all ties with "Russian artists and institutions who are allied with President Putin."

The Met's general manager, Mr. Peter Gelb, went further, in a video statement on Facebook, that, "as an international opera company, the Met can help ring the alarm and contribute to the fight against oppression... we can no longer engage with artists or institutions that support Putin or are supported by him - not until the invasion and killing has stopped, order has been restored and restitutions have been made."

Climbing aboard the bandwagon, the Met also cut ties with Gergiev, a conductor of note who has led the renowned Met Opera Orchestra, one of the finest ensembles of its kind, in several extraordinary premieres, including that of Prokofiev's mammoth War and Peace (see the following link to my review: As for Ms. Netrebko, she won't be appearing in opera for the next two years, at least - an incalculable loss to the art.

This reminds me of volatile times past, especially the wartime years of the 1930s and 40s. Back then, rumor had it that composer Richard Strauss had cooperated with the Nazi regime, although he never actually joined the party outright. While others, among them conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler, Karl Böhm, and Herbert von Karajan, may have had closer ties to the Nazis than was generally known.

How ironic, then, that matters such as which artists were supported in their youth by this or that hate group could result in long-lasting interruptions to their careers, as if they were light switches that could be turned on or off at will, depending on which way the political winds were blowing.

I'm referring, of course, to what's been labeled as "cancel culture" by the press. But are the above actions, taken not only by the Met Opera but in tandem with myriad other organizations, the politically correct way to go? And what does "political correctness" mean in this environment, anyway? It all boils down to personal responsibility and how much disruption individual artists are willing to put up with in order to satisfy (or not satisfy) their contractual obligations.

Besides artists and performers, the ones who suffer the most are us, the paying public, and the very institutions that depend upon the public's patronage. The arts, comprised of opera, the movies, musical theater, museums, art galleries, conservatories, institutions of higher learning, or what-have-you, can only thrive with our participation.

How can there be any live theater at all, in our opinion, if there are no artists to perform in them, or no live public to applaud an artist's efforts? Or a singer's high notes? Or a theater director's intensions? In the general scheme of things, who cares what kind of stand an individual artist takes when it comes to their political beliefs? Is that really so important? Maybe, or maybe not.

This goes to continuing efforts to inoculate the public against not just the coronavirus and its variants, but patently false information ("alternative facts," "fake news," deceptive and misleading practices) that, by virtue of their very insidiousness, can turn individuals against one another. Class differences, cultural distinctions, religious practices, contrary belief systems: these are all interrelated and negatively affected in one way or another. It's incredible how these and other forms of so-called "tribalism," for lack of a better term, can lead to horrible acts performed by supposedly sane human beings.

I'm not going to get into a debate over these volatile issues - that's for saner heads than mine to decide. My aim is not to argue the above points but to encourage people to think independently about the nature of artistic endeavors; to look at both sides, and in the middle, of such arguments, so as to arrive at a fair and equitable solution.

Making informed decisions, ones that are reasoned out and debated through careful consideration, might help us to see clearer and act better; to know each other better; and to deal with one another as adults with an eye towards mutual respect and a degree of forbearance. Besides, what better way to understand another individual than through the artistic experience.

Consequently, we'll be discussing two examples of the artistic experience, mainly the opera Prince Igor (or Knyaz Ygor) by Alexander Borodin and Giuseppe Verdi's original French version of Don Carlos, both more or less contemporaneous with one another. These works, in as "complete" a form as listeners are likely to get nowadays, serve to illustrate many of the arguments put forth above regarding people's perceptions and/or opinions of characters much like themselves.

An Incomplete Masterpiece is "Completed"

Most often mischaracterized as faux-orientalism or a sensual Arabian Nights-style extravaganza, Borodin's unfinished opera Prince Igor finally reached the Met Opera's stage in a new production, developed and designed by Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov and Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda. The Met premiered the work in the 2013-2014 season. It was transmitted, via their Live in HD broadcast, on March 1, 2014.

Boasting some of the most recognizable tunes in all of Russian opera, Prince Igor is an intermediate work. It skirts the outer fringes of its predecessors Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, written and composed by fellow Russian Modest Mussorgsky (read about Boris Godunov's background in the following link:, and the folk-like A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila by Mikhail Glinka, the so-called father of Russian opera.

As it happened, Borodin (1833-1887) chose chemistry as a profession, while working parttime as a composer - quite an unusual combination, wouldn't you say? It's a wonder he was able to devote energy toward his prime vocation while dabbling intermittently in opera. Despite frequent interruptions, Borodin managed to turn out a respectable handful of compositions that merit our consideration, the best known being his symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880), the First (1875) and Second (1881) String Quartets, and a pair of symphonies.

He began work on Prince Igor sometime around 1869, when art critic and historian Vladimir Stasov (sometimes given as Stassov) forwarded a treatment to him of an alleged medieval epic poem from the 12 th century. Impressed with the Prince Igor fable and its pro-Russian slant, Borodin worked sporadically on the project, in between spurts of distraction and inspiration.

Unfortunately, Borodin left his noble Prince incomplete at the composer's 1887 passing. Some close friends, i.e., Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Glazunov, and Anatoly Liadov, all contributed to the orchestration and/or "completion," in one form or another. At the very least, they each attempted to bring order to a somewhat sprawling and, let's face it, disorderly creative process. Yet despite their labors, Prince Igor remained unfinished.

Modern audiences may be familiar with Borodin's themes through the frequently played Polovtsian Dances, a staple of orchestral concerts from time immemorial. Further, many of the opera's tunes, and other snippets from the composer's limited output, were reworked into the 1953 George Forrest/Robert Wright stage adaptation Kismet. Without a doubt, the standards "Stranger in Paradise," "The Sands of Time," "Baubles, Bangles and Beads," "And This is My Beloved" have enjoyed some regularity in the pop-music realm for any number of years.

While the opera itself has had a less than stellar reputation, the Met nevertheless decided upon a complete refurbishing. Was it worth the effort? After all, there hadn't been a Met Opera production of Borodin's stage piece in nearly a century (since 1917, to be exact, coincidentally the year of the fateful Russian Revolution). Having seen the Tcherniakov Live in HD production of Prince Igor via Met Opera On Demand and on a Deutsche Grammophon Blu-ray disc, we can vouch for its viability as theater.

The most noteworthy aspect of this performance was the introduction of undiscovered music into its framework, principally in Act Three. But for starters, the team of Tcherniakov and Noseda (who was principal guest conductor at the Mariinsky Theater for a decade) completely dropped the Overture, which was not by Borodin's hand but the creation of Alexander Glazunov and based almost entirely on Igor's Second Act aria.

The decision to excise any and all music NOT by Borodin himself was maintained throughout the restoration process. So much so that Met audiences were privy to what can only be deemed a North American premiere of sorts.

The plot concerns an impending war between the citizens of Putivl, Igor's home city, situated in the northeast section of modern-day Ukraine (!), and the hostile Polovtsi. In Igor's day, the city was under siege by these nomadic Turk-like tribesmen. The Prologue, modeled on a similar one in Boris Godunov, finds the Prince (bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov) readying his troops for battle. As he inspects his men, the citizens urge him on to glory. However, a sudden solar eclipse frightens the populace, including Igor's second wife Yaroslavna (soprano Oksana Dyka), who pleads with him to abandon his mission. "This is a bad sign," she sings, "an evil portent."

The Prince tries to comfort his wife. He also embraces his son by his first marriage, Vladimir (tenor Sergey Semishkur), who will accompany him on his expedition. Entrusting the people and the governing of the city to his wife's brother, the cunning Prince Galitsky (bass Mikhail Petrenko), a bawdy fellow with devious plans of his own, Igor asks the Boyars to bless the princes and their men as he embarks on his campaign.

A Mighty Epic Told in Flashback

This is where the venture took on real-life elements from the past, specifically the First World War and the "No Man's Land" mentality of the Western Front. In this revised scenario, Tcherniakov reversed the usual order of acts: where formerly, in the traditional Act One, Galitsky and his followers have gone rogue in terrorizing the citizenry (and abducting one of Yaroslavna's handmaids!), as well as making a general nuisance of themselves, the director has drawn audiences directly into the conflict itself.

While the curtain is lowered, black and white scenes, reminiscent of silent cinema, are projected onto a scrim. Igor's troops are startled to see bombs exploding all around them. In a flash, a massive explosion becomes visible, giving the impression the Prince's forces have been wiped out. Interspersed with these images are giant closeups of Igor himself, his face caked in dirt and grime as blood pours forth from his forehead. Other starker pictures evoke the pain of loss, with Igor thrusting his head into his hands or tearfully embracing a fallen comrade in arms.

Behind the scrim, the lovely sound of a Polovtsian maiden (mezzo Kiri Deonarine) intones a mournful song about a little flower that shrivels and sinks into the ground without its water - a reference, if only subliminally, to Igor and his men's dire situation.

As the houselights come up behind the scrim, the audience delights in a vast field of red poppies, accompanied by a lively arabesque in the orchestra. This image may arouse painful memories of antiwar poetry (for example, John McCrae's "In Flanders fields, the poppies blow") and, less obviously, the former Soviet Union. That is to say, an evocation of the 1927 ballet The Red Poppy by Soviet composer Reinhold Glière, a work that dealt specifically with a modern (at the time) revolutionary theme of Soviet sailors rescuing poor starving, overworked Chinese coolies from their harsh capitalist taskmasters.

The scene on the Met's stage, however, is breathtaking to behold, quite the contrary to what one would expect. But it's short lived: the houselights go dark again. In place of the poppy field, we see the injured Igor lying on a cot, his head bandaged, his body wrapped in a linen cloth. Is he dying, is he wounded? A little bit of both? He's certainly immobilized. In the next instant, we see the huge figure of his nemesis, the Khan Konchak (bass Štefan Kocán), peering down at Igor's lifeless form, mouthing instructions to an unseen servant or orderly. Who is this grim figure, and what does he want from our Prince?

Later, as Igor awakes in the middle of the poppy field, he is dazzled by the beauty, but continues to suffer from a painful head injury. Visions of the various personages in his life, including Konchakovna (mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili), the Khan's ravishingly gorgeous dark-haired daughter; his son Vladimir (who has fallen in love with the girl!); and Igor's wife Yaroslavna, throw the tormented Prince into a tailspin of conflicting emotions. Which way does he turn? Where can he go?

It's obvious, for one, that Igor has suffered from post-traumatic stress; for another, the entire scene might be playing out in Igor's head, an imperceptible form of Chinese torture, or mind control, the kind that figured prominently in the 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate. This, then, is director and set designer Tcherniakov's masterstroke, his ace in the hole: the subliminal appropriation of a minor figure, that of Dr. Yen Lo (played by American actor Khigh Dhiegh, known to viewers as Chinese agent Wo Fat in the long-running TV series Hawaii Five-O), who masterminded the brainwashing of Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) in that same Manchurian Candidate.

You might wonder if this analysis is a bit of a stretch, but think about it for a minute: when viewing Prince Igor at home, one's mind tends to wander onto uncharted waters, as foreign and murky as the ones we've described above. Fittingly, the wounded Prince expresses his doubts in the aria, "No sleep, no rest for my tormented soul!" It's a wonderful piece, full of critical self-analysis and expressions of love and longing for home and Mother Russia.

When the mysterious Khan Konchak finally makes his appearance, there can be no doubt in this author's mind this character, this stand-in for Dr. Yen Lo, is toying with his prisoner. Deceptively, the Khan insists on treating Igor as a friend. Why, he's the guest of honor! Igor refuses to concede, in fact he's adamant about not cooperating. Ah, but the Khan wants only friendship, an alliance between two great powers. In fact, he admires Igor, and respects him for his bravery and fearlessness in battle. "No, I am not your enemy," the crafty Khan repeats at length, "I am your host." The Khan boasts of his deeds, his riches, his courage and skill in war. He even offers his prisoner a bride: "Choose one! She's yours for the asking."

Who could resist such a clever ploy, brainwashing at its best? But Igor does resist and remains unconvinced by the Khan's false sincerity. The Act ends with the most well-known portion of the program, the Polovtsian Dances (choreographed by Itzik Galili), a near-Bacchanalian assemblage of bodies and flowing gowns in free-form balletic movements. There are no whirling dervishes, no Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves-like belly dancing, nor any of Scheherazade's slinky gyrations. This is storytelling through pure dance, which leaves Igor twisting and turning - first this-way, then that-way - in his attempts at joining the celebration. In the end, they thoroughly exhaust him.

At the last, Igor is alone on stage, bewildered by the experience. This entire sequence, as bold, forthright and innovative as it seems, was nothing but an illusion, a figment of the Prince's imagination. In times of stress, the mind can play powerful tricks on one's subconscious.

The middle portions of Borodin's opus take audiences back to Putivl and the regent Prince Galitsky's philandering and eventual demise. On records, one can enjoy the vocal acrobatics of Fyodor Chaliapin, Boris Christoff, and Nicolai Ghiaurov, who sink their teeth into Galitsky's jovial ditty, "I love a merry life," whereas basso Petrenko barely passes muster. Two army deserters, Skula (Vladimir Ognovenko) and Yeroshka (Andrey Popov), offer their services. Sung by a bass and a tenor, these are standard stock characters in Russian opera.

In the final act, the city-state of Putivl has been demolished, in much the same manner as parts of the Ukraine are today, lying in dust and debris. How enduring works of art can inform viewers' opinions of today's bitter realities! Yaroslavna and the people have lost all hope, as she cries openly for her husband. Rumors of the Prince's death have been greatly exaggerated, much to everyone's dismay.

Against all odds, Prince Igor finally returns, broken and humbled, yet determined to make a difference. Despite the bitterness he has endured, a witness to his fallen comrades' deaths and the near-loss of his homeland, the industrious Igor, alone at first, rises to the challenge as he attempts to rebuild the city. His efforts, spurned and looked down upon by some, at last bring the people together. Their joint rebuilding effort will not be in vain.

This marks not the end of this thought-provoking adaptation of a classic Russian work, but the beginning of our understanding. Somewhere, among the scattered remnants of lives interrupted by war and savagery, we may find the strength and wisdom to rebuild, and to form a lasting peace among peoples of all nations.

(End of Part One)

To be continued....

Copyright © 2022 by Josmar F. Lopes

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