The last time the Met ventured the sprawl of Prince Igor was on December 15 1917. The accepted language for this very Russian opera was Italian, and this was the last of 10 sporadic performances spread over two years. The rest, as they say, was silence – until Thursday, when Borodin’s quasi-historical, quasi-hysterical extravaganza returned in its original language and, more important, in a highly extravagant production by Dmitri Tcherniakov.
The house, capacity 4,000, yawned with empty seats at the start. It yawned even more at the finish, four hours and 20 minutes later.
A manipulator who abides by his own clever rules, Tcherniakov knows how to create arresting stage pictures. He designs them himself. He knows how to choreograph intricate crowd scenes, knows how to focus both action and inaction tellingly. He apparently enjoys toying with temporal periods, and he doesn’t mind bouncing from realism to stylisation to abstraction as the spirit moves him.
He takes liberties with both narration and scenic delineation without compunction, and, in quest of sonic adventure, sometimes ignores conventional definitions. At one point during this endeavour he stationed the chorus inside the auditorium, banishing customers from side-tier boxes to make room for serenaders who had been banished from the stage.
All this might have provoked serious protest if the object of his intervention were something relatively sacrosanct, say Don Giovanni or Carmen. Prince Igor, however, is no touch-me-not masterpiece. Borodin left it incomplete when he died in 1887. Other composers have imposed their will on the remnants ever since. The version on display here, presumably concocted by Tcherniakov, is a hodgepodge that uses old orchestrations by Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin plus new ones by Pavel Smelkov. It adds something esoteric here, omits something familiar there, and even appends a surprise finale: an orchestral episode called The River Don Floods, which Borodin intended for the unrelated opera-ballet Mlada.
Tcherniakov sets two acts, even a crucial nature scene, within a nondescript yet elaborately delineated town hall. It crumbles, literally and symbolically, at the end. The optimistic Met apologia calls it “a timeless space inspired by different periods of Russian history and architecture”. Elsewhere the directorial divo dabbles in film embellishment. Most striking, and most troubling, he substitutes a vast garden of incongruous poppies for the Polovtsian steppes, upon which would-be dancers execute embarrassing writhing rituals. Call them strangers in paradise.
If all had gone as planned, the conductor would have been Valery Gergiev and the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. They were eventually replaced by Gianandrea Noseda, who stirred the musical broth knowingly, and Itzik Galili, who supervised the mass twisting and shaking conscientiously. Ildar Abdrazakov suffered nobly, also sonorously, in the title role. Even when a bit shrill, Oksana Dyka moped sensitively as Yaroslavna. Anita Rachvelishvili vamped sweetly as Konchakovna. Mikhail Petrenko staggered lustily as nasty Galitsky, Sergey Semishkur gushed ardently as Vladimir, and Stefan Kocán strutted forcefully as Konchak.
Everyone tried with valour, sometimes with success, to mute the inherent odds and oddities.