When faced with Disaster rather than Triumph, how does a true leader respond? The ability to “watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools” was Rudyard Kipling's mark of a man and it's the key to the final scene in Dmitri Tcherniakov's deeply psychological staging of Prince Igor at Dutch National Opera. Igor, returning to Putivl after ignominious military defeat to the Polovtsians, finds his city in ruins. Crowds acclaim his return, but Igor – clearly in the throes of a post-traumatic stress disorder – responds by clearing rubble.

Ildar Abdrazakov (Prince Igor) © BAUS
Ildar Abdrazakov (Prince Igor)
© BAUS

Prince Igor, based on a 12th-century epic poem, is an unwieldy monster of an opera, a pageant of tableaux. It tells the story of Igor's failed military campaign against the invading Polovtsians and the attempted coup by Prince Galitsky, Igor's brother-in-law, who is left in charge of Putivl in Igor's absence. Despite being treated more as a guest than a prisoner-of-war by the Polovtsian leader, Khan Konchak, Igor engineers his escape. His return home is greeted as a triumph. 

Tcherniakov's affecting denouement is to music which is not part of the official score. Alexander Borodin – a research chemist by profession – composed it in his spare time. He spent 18 years tinkering at it, yet died before its completion. The task of finishing the opera was left to Glazunov, who composed an overture and much of Act 3, and to Rimsky-Korsakov, who completed the orchestration. The fragmented state of Borodin's score has given Tcherniakov licence to create his own performing edition. The pot-pourri overture is scrapped, as is Act 3 – the second Polovtsian act – although the trio and Igor's monologue are rescued and appear in Act 4. After the final triumphal chorus, Tcherniakov adds new music to signal the rebuilding of the city. “The River Don floods” was part of Borodin's contribution to Mlada, an opera-ballet by The Mighty Handful which never came to light. Igor staggers around wildly during its tempestuous opening bars, before the music calms and he starts to salvage things from the rubble. Others follow his lead. Hope is reborn. 

Pavel Černoch (Vladimir) and Agunda Kulaeva (Konchakovna) © BAUS
Pavel Černoch (Vladimir) and Agunda Kulaeva (Konchakovna)
© BAUS

Tcherniakov also switches the order of Acts 1 and 2. The Polovtsian act immediately follows the Prologue (where Igor heads off to war) and is breathtakingly gorgeous. A field of silken poppies veiled by a gauze scrim plays host to Igor's opium-fuelled dream in the wake of crushing military defeat. Tcherniakov sets the opera at the time of the Russian Revolution and, before the music begins, black-and-white video footage offers giant close-ups of Igor and his bloodied soldiers numbed by their experiences. A shell-shocked Igor is in crisis. He hallucinates, imagining the presence of Yaroslvana, his wife, who tends him with water from a pitcher. Rejecting an alliance with the warlord Khan Konchak, Igor briefly finds release during the pulsating Polovtsian Dances, where hedonistic youngsters leap and gyrate among the poppies like a perfumed Rite of Spring.

The problem with placing the Polovtsian act first is that, musically, the opera peaks too soon, leaving the audience with two long acts of (mostly) Putivlian gloom. However, that's my only caveat with Tcherniakov's staging, which makes greater sense of the story – such as it is – than any I've seen. The contrast between the open skies of the Polovtsian camp and the mustard-coloured interior of Igor's court under the charge of the corrupt Prince Galitsky is stark. Tcherniakov also handles crowd scenes brilliantly, every movement meticulously detailed. The explosive end to Act 2, where Putivl is bombed, is almost as big a coup as the field of poppies.

Oksana Dyka (Yaroslavna) © BAUS
Oksana Dyka (Yaroslavna)
© BAUS

DNO has assembled a strong cast for the European première of this production, previously seen at the Metropolitan Opera. Ildar Abdrazakov, who also took the title role in New York, was splendid as the brooding Igor, intensely acted, his grainy bass scaling the upper reaches of this traditionally baritone role with tremendous power. Oksana Dyka's soprano was remarkably penetrating as Yaroslavna, but it glints coldly, lacking voluptuous warmth. It also veered sharp. 

Dmitry Ulyanov did the Boris Christoff “double” of singing Khan Konchak and the rabble-rousing Prince Galitsky, bringing bags of character – and a fair amount of Christoff fist-clenching – to both roles. He has a powerful bass and great low notes. Pavel Černoch sang a stylish Vladimir (Igor's son), his slimline tenor capable of vibrant tone when pushed. Agunda Kulaeva's dusky mezzo suited the exotic lines of Konchakovna's sultry aria, though her phrasing was occasionally choppy. In the smaller roles, Andrei Popov and Vladimir Ognovenko added plenty of character to the roguish chancers Yeroshka and Skula.

Dmitry Ulyanov (Galitsky) and Chorus © BAUS
Dmitry Ulyanov (Galitsky) and Chorus
© BAUS

Stanislav Kochanovsky drew impressive playing from the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, snarling horns and oily clarinet the highlights. His tempi tended towards the sluggish a few times and there were coordination problems in the Polovtsian Dances, unsurprisingly given the chorus was split, placed very high up close to the stage. Otherwise, the Chorus of DNO, bolstered for this Russian epic, was outstanding, singing with passion and pathos.

This moving production delves into the psychological rather than revelling in the spectacular. Tcherniakov has tamed Borodin's monster.

****1