Just spent four hours in Russia today, watching Prince Igor, an opera by Borodin and two of his friends who completed it after he died before he finished it. The NY Times has an interesting review of the piece and gives lots of background for the work that is based, loosely, on a 12th century legend/poem, plus a musical snippet.
The Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov reordered scenes, tweaked the plot, exciseed whole ensembles and interpolated musical numbers from a different score, to paraphrase the NYT. In doing so, he revealed much about the Russian character, though IFO doubts he looked at it the way she did.
Overall, we would say this opera was massive and moving. It has certainly will send us to the Internet to find out more about the boyars and 12th century Russian history. But for now, we’ll just drop a few observations:
* The symbolism of a white handkerchief is brand-new to us. When we first saw the wounded Prince Igor having his hands laved and wiped with a white cloth, we didn’t think much about it. But then the odious Prince Galitzky wiped his own hands several times with a white cloth. What could it mean? We think that, given the contexts, it meant physical comfort and pleasure. In a good sense in the first case and a disgusting sense in the second. Genius staging, we say.
* Two “gudok” players, used the word “Nu? Nu?” and we immediately thought of the Yiddish “Nu?” It means Well? in Russian and probably Yiddish, as well. A gudok, BTW, is a musical instrument from the 12th century, a traditional stringed instrument that Borodin was trying to revive. The gudok players in the Met’s production never played any musical instruments. They were depicted as among the few characters not in some kind of uniform and as drunkards and wastrels. Curious.
* At the beginning of the opera there was a big number that featured many references to “Glory to Russia!” After several hearings, we realized the word for Glory was Slav! In our viewing of live broadcasts during the problems in Ukraine, we noticed that many speakers on the Maidan (Square) began their addresses with the cry “Slav Ukraine!” It sounded like sla ukraheenah. The crowd responded with the same phrase.
* This reminded us of how early settlers in the U.S. were said to have named the local native tribes they encountered. “What do you call yourselves?” the early settlers would ask. The tribal people would answer, in their own language, “The People!” That came out sounding like “Sioux” or “Iroquois” or “Apache” or “Arapahoe” to the non-Native language speakers.
* And finally, the music likely was waaayy more informative to the sensitive listener than the composer or the director intended. The evil reprobate Prince Galitzky’s music was heavy, brutal, dark, crude and dangerous sounding. Those Russians really ARE b*ast*rds!
The Polovtsian music was from the East – probably Siberian style. Graceful, delicate, free, happy. Prince Igor and his wife both sang very sad, but dignified melodies – probably the best that Russia had to offer, but was eliminated starting in oh, about, 1917.