Gone are the days when Borodin’s Prince Igor was presented as dry historical pageant, dusty stagings of static tableaux. Directors now prefer to tap into the psychology of the title character, particularly how a leader responds to crushing military defeat. To Dmitri Tcherniakov’s opium-fuelled staging (that poppy field!), which saw Igor suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Barrie Kosky offers an hallucinogenic Polovtsian Dances as Igor languishes in Khan Konchak’s torture chamber. It’s a grimy, grungy staging, often a visual mismatch to Borodin’s sumptuous music, but a strong cast and superb conducting by Philippe Jordan weigh strongly in its favour.

Ildar Abdrazakov (Igor) © Agathe Poupeney | Opéra de Paris
Ildar Abdrazakov (Igor)
© Agathe Poupeney | Opéra de Paris

Borodin left his only opera incomplete, salvaged by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov who orchestrated and composed swathes of the score to bring it to a performing edition. This has given licence to directors to cut and shunt the music about ever since. Here, the overture, composed by Glazunov, is played after Act 2, whereas the second Polovtsian act – in which Igor escapes captivity – is cut entirely.

Kosky’s staging is muddled, lacking the coherence of Tcherniakov. It opens with Igor sitting on his throne beneath a golden dome and neon cross while the chorus sings in pitch blackness – nullifying the solar eclipse later in the Prologue. Having led his army off to war, Igor leaves Prince Galitsky, his brother-in-law, in charge. Galitsky’s court is a pleasure palace, soldiers splashing around in the pool and molesting a group of nuns. When Yaroslavna, Igor’s wife, learns that Putivl is about to come under attack, she randomly opens fire on a member of Galitsky’s entourage.

Pavel Černoch (Vladimir) and chorus © Agathe Poupeney | Opéra de Paris
Pavel Černoch (Vladimir) and chorus
© Agathe Poupeney | Opéra de Paris

The Polovtsian Act takes place in a torture chamber, which is perverse because Igor and his fellow prisoners of war are supposed to be treated courteously by the magnanimous Konchak (“You live as a Khan here; you live as I do”) who lays on a spectacular entertainment for him. Here, Konchak pushes Igor off-stage, wielding a pair of pliers, leaving the coast clear for a mind-warping dance display, Otto Pichler at his most surreal. Act 4 is weak – as much Borodin’s fault as Kosky’s – Igor’s return (having escaped) seeing him reunited with Yaroslavna on a wide stretch of road that leads nowhere. Kosky does deliver a telling finale though, the crowd acclaiming not Igor but his greatcoat – the mob can be fooled into blindly following anything.

Ildar Abdrazakov (Igor) © Agathe Poupeney | Opéra de Paris
Ildar Abdrazakov (Igor)
© Agathe Poupeney | Opéra de Paris

Ildar Abdrazakov is a leading exponent of the title role. His grainy bass-baritone got under Igor’s skin, especially in his aria “No sleep, no rest for my tormented soul”. Abdrazakov is a convincing actor, although Kosky limits his range. Elena Stikhina was a moving Yaroslavna, her soprano clear and expressive, while Dmitry Ulyanov’s Galitsky was suitably rabble-rousing, roaring his Act 1 song whilst attacking a hog roast. Anita Rachvelishvili was luxury casting as Konchakovna, her cavernous mezzo devouring up the Bastille in her cavatina. Pavel Černoch was in plangent form as her love interest, Igor’s son Vladimir. Dimitry Ivashchenko lacked heft as Konchak, but credit to Irina Kopylova as the Polovtsian maiden at the start of the act, spinning her line seductively (but why were the Polovtsians also prisoners of Konchak?) The men of the Choeurs de l'Opéra National de Paris were in superb form, the ladies less so, suffering several intonation slips.

Dmitry Ulyanov (Galitsky) © Agathe Poupeney | Opéra de Paris
Dmitry Ulyanov (Galitsky)
© Agathe Poupeney | Opéra de Paris

Philippe Jordan drew ripe playing from his orchestra, providing the aural colour the staging so often missed. Only a horn fluff marred an urgent account of the overture and the Polovtsian Dances pulsated with an energy that rightly brought the house down.


***11