The Metropolitan Opera’s new Prince Igor is a mishmash of old and new, a production that manages to be both a psychological study and a historical portrayal, with visuals ranging from stunning to drab. The traditional version of the score has been trimmed by director Dmitri Tcherniakov and conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who scrapped several sections, including the overture and ending, and tacked on a new ending of their own. Plus, the original source material has been shuffled around. But cutting and pasting maneuvers aren’t so unusual for this opera, left unfinished by Alexander Borodin at the time of his sudden death in 1887.

A scene from Act I with Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor Svyatoslavich © Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
A scene from Act I with Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor Svyatoslavich
© Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera

Borodin – who was actually a chemist, not a professional composer – left behind notes and sketches, some of them only in shorthand, after working on the opera for nearly eighteen years. Two younger composers, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov, then edited and added onto and orchestrated and stitched together what was left. The Met’s new version has eliminated Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov’s additions (though their orchestration is still employed) and opted for pensive storytelling that keeps the drama simmering through all four-and-a-half hours.

Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor Svyatoslavich © Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor Svyatoslavich
© Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
Mr Tcherniakov’s production opens with a video projection substituting for the curtain, showing a black and white close-up of a blinking face, as the orchestra briefly introduces us to Prince Igor. We are then abruptly introduced to everyone else as the stage is revealed and the chorus dives into “Glory to the beautiful sun”. Judging by Elena Zaitseva’s beautiful costumes, the action of the opera has been shifted from 1185, perhaps to the 19th century. The men are clad in neat uniforms with rifles slung over their shoulders. The women wear unostentatious dresses. Their voices crescendo and accelerate (but not in a distracting way) through Mr Noseda’s briskly conducted prologue, in which we learn that Prince Igor is preparing his army for a military campaign against the Polovtsians.

We also learn of the importance of light to this story, as after singing praise to the sun, the people of Putivl witness a solar eclipse that they interpret as a bad omen. Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting in combination with the windy sound effects envelop the spare set – white balcony and bare floors beneath a wood truss roof – in an ominous atmosphere. This, Mr Tcherniakov’s first set, serves as the backdrop for not only the prologue, but the three scenes of the second act and the third act as well. The radically different first act is like a breath of fresh air in the otherwise dramatically conventional production.

After the prologue, the opera house is plunged back into silence and darkness, save for a continuation of S. Katy Tucker’s video projection, once again in black and white, which pans across faces of breathless soldiers. We watch the scenes of explosion, hysteria, and fear through Igor’s eyes as the silence is broken by a woman singing from the orchestra pit. When the bedraggled close-up of Igor dissolves and the stage is revealed, it is covered from end to end in bright red poppies. In the scenes that follow, the grey-scale glimpses of Igor’s psychological state are contrasted with the vivid flowers of his present, as a prisoner in the Polovtsian steppes. Even the best opera glasses would be no match for the intensity of this close-up introspection.

Anita Rachvilishvili as Konchakovna, Sergey Semishkur as Vladimir Igorevich, Ildar Abdrazakov © Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
Anita Rachvilishvili as Konchakovna, Sergey Semishkur as Vladimir Igorevich, Ildar Abdrazakov
© Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
The singing and conducting were brilliant, particularly during the final bits, as a befuddled Igor staggered under the weight of his memories, surrounded by dancers and with the chorus escalating the tension from boxes to the sides of the stage. Itzik Galili’s choreography felt distracting and disjointed, but perhaps this was only an accurate accompaniment to Igor’s bewilderment and the frenzy of the orchestration. The Polovtsian slaves, all with long hair and flesh-colored pajama-type outfits, twirled and thrashed their way across the poppy field, at times flapping their arms up and down like children pretending to be butterflies. Despite the at times spastic choreography, this act was by far the strongest of the evening.

The singing during this act also surpassed that of the other sections. Sergey Semishkur as Prince Igor’s son implored us with a voice that melted like butter. Igor’s aria was likewise moving: one of Ildar Abdrazakov’s many shining moments. Stefan Kocan rumbled convincingly as Khan Konchak, and his daughter, Konchakovna, was searingly portrayed by Anita Rachvelishvili. Her wild dark tresses provided a contrast with Igor’s straight-laced wife Yaroslavna, sung emotively by Oksana Dyka. Ms Dyka’s Act II aria was enrapturing, with sadness seeping into her voice and movements, as she wondered when or if her beloved Igor would return to Putivl. Moments later, her voice was raw but strong with indignation as she confronted the slimy Prince Galitsky, a casual rapist trying to replace Igor. Prince Galitsky was sung persuasively and powerfully by Mikhail Petrenko. During Acts II and III, the more traditional set returns, and Mr Petrenko was exuberant as he caroused with his cronies in his “palace” (which seems more like a frat house).

Mr Petrenko’s convincing Galitsky, in combination with the surprisingly realistic explosion at the end of Act II, made Igor’s return in Act III all the more triumphant. In this new version, Igor returns to Putivl amid rubble and destruction, with a choir singing, quiet and hymn-like, offstage. Instead of ringing church bells, he bangs a metal pipe against some of the fallen debris, and instead of the bombastic praise of the chorus – lauding their returned hero – the finale was more tranquil, even peaceful. Mr Noseda’s conducting, which had been brisk and even blustering before, became solemn and resolute.

A scene from Act I © Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera
A scene from Act I
© Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera

I was left wondering why the video projections had been limited to the first act, and why those stunning poppies were paired with the conventional all-purpose sets of the others. Although the most impressive directing may have been reserved for the first act, the music was beautiful throughout: majestic and harrowing chords vibrating and modulating beneath the tale of Prince Igor’s campaign.

***11