When Russian companies perform in the west, we usually applaud their discipline and sense of tradition – a very different tradition to ours. But there is authentic tradition, nobly embodied by the Mariinsky and Bolshoi ensembles, and lazy tradition. It’s the latter that characterises the Novaya Opera of Moscow’s Prince Igor.
Borodin’s nationalist pageant, in effect a string of lyrical tableaux, is hard to pull off at the best of times, but at least it gives chorus, orchestra, designer and choreographer a chance to show off. In the guise presented by the Novaya ensemble, notwithstanding some fine orchestral playing and a tiny handful of proud solo spots for the principal singers, it resembles an amalgam of touring circus, choreographic kitsch and tawdry spectacle. The performance is too unsophisticated to qualify even as museum opera.
I’ve seen the Novaya Opera, Moscow’s best-established post-perestroika company, at its splendid home theatre, so I know what it is capable of – far better than this. Quite how its directors thought it could impress London with this clichéd snapshot of old-fashioned production values is anyone’s guess. It’s not so much the costumes and scenery that let the show down – wholly generic though they may be. No, the fault lies more with stage direction and choreography.
This epic – and epically flawed – opera tells us that strife along the Ukrainian border did not begin with Putin. It has been going on for millennia. We don’t need a “modern” interpretation to tell us so, but we do expect something more challenging than semaphore acting, thigh-slapping choral routines and Polovtsian dances that barely rise above the level of an oldies’ movement class. This latter scene, the opera’s most famous, was a huge anti-climax, partly compensated for by the refreshingly simple finale, with the mystic chorus transposed to the very end.
Igor, a classic Russian bass role, has relatively little to sing, but Sergey Artamonov seized his chances with authority. Elena Popovskaya’s Yaroslavna and Aleksey Tatarintsev’s Vladimir had attractive voices but lacked charisma and intensity. The conductor, Jan Latham-Koenig, has a lot more work to do if he wants his ensemble to export first-class Russian artistic values.