You know what I know even less about than opera? Russian history and Russian music. So what am I to make of the Met’s new production of Prince Igor? Am I pissed off to have lost harem pants and Arabian fantasies for a coherent libretto and a concept that makes sense? Not at all. Thank you, director Dmitri Tcherniakov. If I want traditional I can always catch (Putin’s favorite conductor/director) Valery Gergeiv’s version on the youtube.

The critical reception has been mostly favorable, but some guy over at an e-zine walked out after the first act to show how cool he was. Sorry, where I come from (that would be Queens) reviewing without staying to the end is considered bad form. The Times liked it, and the audience seemed to on Friday night when we went. I’m sure plenty of people were looking forward to scantily clad Polovtsian maidens dressed like Barbara Eden and were disappointed when instead they got a fever dream in a field of poppies. Poppies. Worked for me, but I couldn’t get Margaret Hamilton saying “Poppies. Poppies will make them sleep” out of my brain.

Here’s the story in its simplest form: Prince Igor runs the city-state of Putivl. He goes off with his troops to war against the Polovastians – nomads from the east. He loses and gets taken prisoner. He escapes and comes home to a ruined city. The end.

It’s during his time as a hostage that the Khan (the leader of the Polovstians, insert Star Trek joke here) entertains him with dancing maidens and that’s where we get the Polovstian dancers, which if you are an American of a certain age, and stayed up late watching the late, late show, you remember from this commercial:

The opera was composed by Alexander Borodin over many years and was unfinished at his death, so others – Alexander Glazunov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov worked on it as well. For this production, Tcherniakov scrapped a lot of the additions and tried to return as much as possible to Borodin’s original.

Borodin, the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince and a Russian peasant serf girl, was a prominent scientist who never composed full time. He was part of a group of “late 19th century Russian composers who rejected Western styles and conservatory-taught methods, seeing instead an original Russian form of musical expression.” (Playbill program). So this opera might be considered, as the better-half put it, “outsider art.”

The music is haunting, exotic, melodic. It doesn’t sound like any other opera. Most of the prominent male roles are booming basses. There’s a ginormous chorus, and between that and the ten minute ballet it’s a cast of at least hundreds making it difficult and expensive to stage. (The last time the Met did it was 1917.) And then there’s the whole west meets east, or rather east meets further east, thing. Back in the 90′s one musicologist declared it Exhibit A in a treatise on Orientalism, but in this production Tcherniakov has something else in mind.

It’s long – four hours and 15 minutes including two intermissions, and that’s excising at least one act and an overture. We open with words projected on a humongous screen – “To unleash a war is the surest way to escape from one’s self.” Then there’s a projection in black and white of Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor. Just a giant face. At first I had my doubts about the cinematography, but there’s method, and it’s not madness.

We go to the prologue. In the city-state of Putivl, they’re gearing up for war. There’s an eclipse which everybody takes as a bad sign. Igor is leaving his brother-in-law, Prince Galitsky in charge. Igor’s wife, Yaroslavna, pleads with him not to go. Yaroslavna is sung by Oksana Dyka whose voice has been described as “clanging” and “metallic” by some critics. I’d use intense and powerful. I’d never heard anything like it. It works for this role.

The pay-off for the photos comes in Act I (which is really Act II but for some reason the first act is considered a prologue.) Igor with a head wound wakes in the giant poppy field. According to the program, “In his mind, the tormented Igor replays over and over everything that has happened.” We see the losing battle played out in still photos and short clips of soldiers falling. We go back several times to black and white images of the Prince prostrate on the battle field. Is the poppy field “real” or a mental landscape? It’s disconcerting. The Prince’s wife, Yaroslavna shows up. Clearly that’s a hallucination but what about the Khan? He seems like a jovial guy and appears to just want the Prince’s friendship, insists he’s a guest and not a hostage and would happily free him if he promised not to oppose him, a promise Igor can’t make. We meet the Khan’s daughter, Konchakovna sung by the always sultry mezzo, Anita Rachvelishvilli (Carmen is her signature role) who is in love with Igor’s son, Prince Vladimir, who plans on sticking around. Is that even real? (For all we know, the young prince might have died in battle and it’s Igor’s fantasy.) As for the big dance number, the dancers spring up from the ground wearing simple costumes, and while the ballet is beautiful, it’s a not the usual kitsch. The program implies it’s a vision, and that’s the only way to make sense of it.

Meantime over in Putivl, Prince Galitsky is abducting maidens and planning to send his sister, Yaroslavna, to a nunnery and take over. She’s doing the best she can, but has no army. There’s a rebellion – more of a drunken riot, and then the Polovastians invade and her brother is killed.

In the final act, we see the city in ruins and here there’s a definite post-apocalyptic vibe. Igor, who has escaped from the Khan returns. The crowd is jubilant. Why they aren’t ready to kill him for getting them into this disastrous adventure is a mystery to me, but who knows with those Russians? Igor has a monologue about those who died. It’s all very Brechtian, especially when he leads his people by grabbing some bricks from the rubble to begin to rebuild the city.

Moral of the story, never get into a land war in Asia.

Works for me, and I’m sure it has resonance and relevance for the Russians as well. Regarding performers not specifically mentioned, Sergey Semishkur as Prince Vladimir – the only tenor – sang very sweetly with Rachvelishvilli. Stefan Kocan as the Khan did a fine job. Mikhail Petreko managed to make Galitsky vile without going over the top and milking it. The chorus was outstanding, and Abdrazakov was brilliant.

Worth seeing? Hell yeah. Great music, great theater, and very different from anything else we’ve seen. There are a few more performances between now and March 8th, including a March 1st live in HD. Long as it is, you could do worse on a chilly Saturday afternoon. I’d even recommend it for the opera-curious who’ve never been.

Below is the director talking about his intentions:

(Enjoy these free and entertaining reviews? Nothing says thank you like buying one of Marion’s novellas for less than a buck and maybe leaving a nice review. If you like it, you could even buy her novel for less than a fancy coffee drink at Starbucks.)

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