There’s a touch of Borodin bus syndrome around at the moment; you wait years for a production of Prince Igor, then two come along in succession. The first was from the Metropolitan Opera, directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, swiftly followed by the Novaya Opera which brings its production from Moscow to London as part of the UK—Russia Year of Culture. Borodin’s music has been heard in the Coliseum not so long ago in the form of Kismet in 2007, but we’ll draw a discreet silken veil across that one. A relatively young company, founded in 1991, the Novaya (New) Opera’s production is solidly traditional but boasts some very fine singing.

Sergey Artamonov (Prince Igor) © Daniil Kochetkov
Sergey Artamonov (Prince Igor)
© Daniil Kochetkov

When he died in 1887, Borodin’s sole opera, based on Igor’s failed campaign against the Polovtsy in the 12th century, was in a shambolic state. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov had already assumed the role of editing the work and, with Alexander Glazunov, pieced the jigsaw together to publish their completed version. Rimsky undertook most of the orchestrations, while Glazunov composed an overture based on themes from the opera (he used to spin a story about hearing Borodin play it through on the piano). He also composed the bulk of Act III, the second Polovtsian act, where Igor plots his escape from captivity. We were promised the Rimsky-Korsakov/ Glazunov edition of the score, which is not entirely what we got. Director Yuri Alexandrov wielded the scissors to excise Act III completely, while the end of Act IV was heavily cut. In his recent Met Opera production, Dmitri Tcherniakov adopted a similar cut and paste approach to the score, also removing Act III, which worked most effectively, ending on a subdued note as Igor returns from captivity ready to help rebuild Russia. By cutting the high jinks of the good-for-nothing gudok players and the rousing final chorus, Alexandrov also ends on a reflective note, on a religious chorus lamenting Igor’s defeat. It was such a subdued note that it rather took the audience by surprise when the house lights came up.

Final scene from Prince Igor (Novaya Opera) © Daniil Kochetkov
Final scene from Prince Igor (Novaya Opera)
© Daniil Kochetkov

Alexandrov’s production is ‘traditional’ in whatever sense you wish to take the word. It meant the chorus was static for a lot of the time and the main singers were left to adopt ‘park and bark’ performance technique, apart from some awkward cavorting between Vladimir and Konchakovna in their Act II tryst. However, a lack of frenetic stage action allows more focus on the singing and the Novaya didn’t disappoint. How glorious to hear a Russian chorus in full cry, basses plumbing the subterranean depths!

The set for the Prologue and Act I was simple and effective, incense swirling the stage, atmospherically lit by Irina Vtornikova. Beyond stock gestures, not all the direction was convincing. Yaroslavna’s Act I aria was undermined by an unintentionally comic quartet of nuns fussing around, one of whom was hunchbacked to a degree productions of Rigoletto would be too embarrassed to consider. The Polovtsian act contains the best music in the score by far, Borodin adopting exotic mode to contrast with the epic, heavyweight quality of the Russian setting of Putivl. Canopies of tents were draped in the background, although the stuffed hawk bordered on the risible. The chorus was clad exotically to create a colourful spectacle. And how hard they worked! Promotional material for this staging focused on “The Polovtsian Dances” – the part of the score that is best known, beginning with “Fly away on wings of wind” (the melody later adopted for “Stranger in Paradise”). In productions I’ve seen, this is a 20-minute tour de force for an associated ballet company, but not here. The chorus members, ever game, sang and danced their way through the various numbers, including wild gyrations and wrestling bouts, in a spirited feat of multitasking.

Sergey Artamonov sang splendidly in the title role, his dark bass-baritone impressively navigating the long lines of Igor’s aria as he sings of his disgrace at being captured. Elena Popovskaya’s soprano had a few shrill moments in Act I, but her sorrowful final aria, lamenting Igor’s absence, was nobly dispatched. Of the basses, Evgeny Stavinsky’s Galitsky, Yaroslavna’s carousing, predatory brother, was splendid, while Vladimir Kudashev’s Khan Konchak was vocally less imposing than ideal. Tenor Aleksey Tatarintsev had an ideal sweetness of tone as Vladimir (Igor’s son, also captured), although he was vocally mismatched with Agunda Kulaeva’s imposing Konchakovna (the Khan’s daughter). The gear changes in Kulaeva’s mezzo were a little too obvious, but her smoky lower notes were impressively dark.

Under British conductor Jan Latham-Koenig, the Novaya Opera Orchestra offered a lively account of the score, the overture, placed after the Prologue, brought off with panache. The three hours performance time simply flew by, while that final unaccompanied chorus is still haunting my mind now.

****1