United Kingdom Borodin, Prince Igor: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Novaya Opera, Moscow / Jan Latham-Koenig (conductor), London Coliseum, 1.4.2014 (RB)
Prince : Sergey Artamonov
Yaroslavna: Elena Popovskaya
Vladimir: Aleksey Tatarintsev
Galitsky: Evgeny Stravinsky
Konchak: Vladimir Kudashev
Konchakovna: Agunda Kulaeva
Ovlur: Yarolav Abaimov
Skula: Anatoly Grigoriev
Yeroshka: Maksim Ostroukhov
Nurse: Svetlana Skripkina
Polovtsian Maid: Galina Koroleva
Stage Director: Yuri Alexandrov
Set and Costume Designer: Vyacheslav Okunev
Stage Movement Directors: Georgy Kovtun, Irina Sharonova
Choirmasters: Natalya Popovich, Marina Vasilkova, Victor Kuturaev
Lighting Designer: Irina Vtornikova
This was the Novaya Opera’s UK debut and an important part of the UK-Russia’s Year of Culture 2014. The libretto for Prince Igor is based on an anonymous narrative dating from the 12th Century which describes the campaign of Prince Igor against the Polovtsy (a nomadic people many of whom took up residence in the Countries on Russia’s borders). In the opera Igor loses the battle against the Polovtsy and his brother in law, Galitsky, takes advantage of his absence to sow the seeds of discontent among the local population in order to lay the ground for a coup. Igor is taken to the camp of the Polovtsy and he is entertained by Khan Konchak and his slave girls (this is where we hear the famous Polovtsian dances). Igor escapes and reunited with his wife, Yaroslavna at the end of the opera and promises to renew his campaign against the Polovtsy.
Prince Igor has rarely been performed in the UK and part of the reason for this may be the varying quality of some of the music. The high point of the opera is Act 2 in the camp of the Polovtsy where the music is truly inspired. Much of the music in Act 1 is also of a high quality but the music in the prologue (much of which involves the chorus) is of lesser quality and the final Act is underwhelming and something of a damp squib after Act 2. Glazunov wrote a third Act for the opera which he intended should be interposed between Act 2 and the final Act, but the music is of variable quality and is left out in many performances including this one. There were a few other minor excisions in this production and the overture followed immediately after the prologue.
Given that the opera highlights political tensions between Russia and its immediate neighbours it has a particular resonance given the current political tensions between Russia and Ukraine. I was therefore a little disappointed that Yuri Alexandrov’s production took a fairly traditional and nationalistic approach to the opera; there is scope within the piece to bring out more universal messages.
Vyacheslav Okunev did a great job with the sets and costumes. In the first Act, we are in the courtyard of Prince Galitsky and we see the frontage of a magnificent medieval building with an imposing archway and buildings either side. The peasants are wearing traditional wan costumes and the nobles (or boyars) more brightly coloured and ornate clothing. In the Second Act we see intricately embroidered tents in a Bedouin camp, and lighting is used to depict the night sky. The Polovtsian maids were all wearing spangled and glitzy oriental costumes with diaphanous fabrics. There were numerous nods to the golden era of the Hollywood musical in this production (which is great), although here were also a few unintended comic mishaps.
The cast were relatively young to take on some of these roles and for the most part they did a very good job. Sergey Artamonov captured the nobility and principled integrity of Igor and his Act 2 aria was magnificent. He has a sonorous, darkly coloured and flexible bass voice and there was a real gravity and depth to the singing, particularly in the Act 2 aria. Elena Popovskaya is a very powerful soprano and she captured both the reflective and imperious sides of Yaroslavna. Occasionally, some of the top notes sounded a little strained and the vibrato was a little over-done but the tone and phrasing were for the most part beautifully controlled. Evgeny Stravinsky is a terrific actor and he was very good working the crowd and encouraging dissolute and debauched behaviour among the townsfolk although I would have liked to see more of the nasty side of Galitsky. Agunda Kulaeva gave us a very sexy Konchavkovna while Aleksey Tartarintsev brought a rich, Italiante quality to Vladimir’s opera in Act 2. The rest of the cast all acquitted themselves well ; I particularly liked Maksim Ostroukhov as the second Gudok-player.
Jan Latham-Koenig kept the evening’s proceedings on course and the orchestra of the Novaya opera did a splendid job with the big set piece numbers. The overture was feisty and energetic with the Russian dance material well handled by woodwind and brass. The Polovtsian dances were exotically perfumed and became a real spectacle of colour towards the end of Act 2. The chorus did a magnificent job throughout from the nationalistic splendour and adulation of the prologue to the religious a capella chorus in the final Act which was beautifully controlled.
Overall, this is a very good production, and it is well worth going to see the Novaya Opera for this limited run.