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Friday, August 31, 2007

Nothing Is Better than Prince Igor

Concert audiences, familiar with Borodin's Prince Igor mostly (if not only) through the famous "Polovtsian Dances," will bring to the opera at least this one burning question: where in the hell is Polovtsia? This, of course, is what Wikipedia is for. According to the Wiki people, the Polovtsians (or Cumans) were apparently a tribe of Turkic nomads, whose wars against Igor--prince of a region now located in the Ukraine--became the basis of a great work of twelfth-century Slavic literature, The Song of Igor’s Campaign. Borodin’s opera, freely adapted from the poem, describes the capture of Igor and his son by the Polovtsians, figured as noble savages from the mysterious East. When I wrote about the Dances this spring in a program note for this fantastic orchestra I was in as a kid (a program note I'm now cannibalizing for this blog), one of the Gregs said that the must-read article on the subject was Richard Taruskin's "'Entoiling the Falconet': Russian Musical Orientalism in Context"--and indeed it's brilliant in the way only Taruskin, among musicologists, can be, without any of the pure unshirted looneytunes he has sometimes been known to talk. The prose is strong, always a pleasant surprise in academic writing, and more importantly, the argument is strong, well-supported by musical examples and close analysis. In a nutshell, he points out that Russia's 19th-century musical identity was defined by the incorporation of exotic, Oriental sounds, noting a handful of clearly recognizable musical features that read as "Oriental"--sinuous melodies, pulsing drones, descending chromatic lines, double-reed timbres, etc.--and tracing them throughout the romantic Russian music, with a special emphasis on Prince Igor. I just wish I'd had space to quote, in my program notes, Taruskin's oblique suggestion that the Russian imperialist project contemporary to Borodin's opera--the political cousin of his musical project--"only came to an end with the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan," as Taruskin put it (in 1992). "Soviet debacle in Afghanistan"? You mean that war against the Taliban? The exact same Taliban we're at war with right now? Hmm. Polovtsia may be closer than it appears. Of course, for Western opera lovers, the Russian repertoire is doubly exotic. The dramatic masterpieces of Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, and even Tchaikovsky are only now becoming familiar to American audiences--thanks mostly to Valery Gergiev, whose DVD of Prince Igor I netflixted last week. (I wish Philips were better at making his videos available; I hear his Fiery Angel is really something to see.) This Igor is a tremendous production, done up with the strange richness and flatness of 19th-century academic painting, which seems to me exactly right. The Khan's daughter (Olga Borodina!) lounges around on silk-draped ottomans, trying on jewelry.... perfect. The dancing is a hoot, too, reviving Mikhail Fokine's wild choreography with more smokin' abs than the Blond Ambition tour:

And to my delight, the score turns out to be uniformly vivid, melodic and sophisticated, all thundering choruses and noble arias and knock-'em-dead musical effects. I do understand Gergiev made a few cuts toward the end--probably for pacing--along with reshuffling an act or two from their original order. (Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov completed and orchestrated the opera after Borodin's death, so Gergiev probably felt free. Still, cuts always make me a little sad... I suffer from mild Wagnerite Personality Disorder and would always prefer to endure too much opera than too little.) At any rate, by the end, I couldn't understand this piece is so neglected, beyond the well-loved concert excerpts; thank God for DVD. Everybody can, and should, see this weird and brilliant thing.

6 comments:

Maury D'annato said...

The Igor Tale (alternately, what do they call it...The Lay of Igor's Campaign, though that's not literal either) is the source of some volume of stultifying academic bickering, though it seems to me the people who dispute its authenticity or indeed find the question compelling may well be all retired now, or in the grave.

just another greg said...

PuzzlePage: What famous twentieth-century composer was named after Prince Igor's title character by his opera-singer father?

For Further Reading: If you'd like to see what opera looks like from the other side of the colonial divide, check out the Mugam operas of Azeri composer Uzeir Hadjibeyov, such as 1908's pathbreaking Leyla i Majnun...

Anonymous said...

There's a perfect adaptation of Prince Igor

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChoRfYn5qP4

I thinks its by a japanese ballet (not sure)

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Anonymous said...

Brutus to "Just Another Greg":

The answer to the question of PuzzlePage is:

Ígorj Fjódorovich Stravínskiy

Will said...

Daniel, does this DVD include the ending Gergiev brought to the US in 1998 in which the formula happy ending is dropped to make place for a lovely, etherial transformation of Igor and all his people who have been slaughtered by the Polovetsi from the dead on earth to the blessed in the afterworld? It was a strikingly beautiful finale.