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Thursday 3 April 2014

Prince Igor at the Coliseum with Kolobov Novaya Opera


copyright Tristram Kenton

Borodin's Prince Igor is an absolute mishmash of a score, and even if you didn't know that it was completed by many others (as I didn't before listening to the first act), you can hear its stylistic incoherence in every bar. In this and many other ways, it presages many aspects of 20th century Modernism and is strongly representative of the gradual replacement of the Teutonic line with the Franco-Russian line as the centre of artform from the late 19th onwards. The piece is built in splashy blocks of contrasting colour, alternating folksy, rowdy, pentatonics with blurry, chromatically sliding orientalisms all sitting above a fundamentally very static harmonic base. Both feel "primitive" and wholly without the large scale tensions of Teutonic diatonic paragraphs which give German music from Bach to Bruckner such gigantic formal strength. It is left to rhythm to provide forward momentum, and in fact rhythm is given an importance and vitality that often makes it the most interesting aspect of the music. Stravinsky's Russian ballets are really not very far away, immeasurably greater though they are, and then at a greater distance Messiaen, Bartok, Les Six, Prokofiev, Schnittke.

I already know before reading other reviews that Yuri Alexandrov's production will be labelled as "traditional" and the like, although, as per usual, it is nothing of the sort. The word "traditional" is now loaded with ideology in the operatic community, so I guess it will suffice as an indication of what to expect. It strikes me that this production is probably self consciously ultra kitsch and "traditional" to appeal to a foreign idea of Russia as some sort of cultural backwater which the corrupting practises of Regie Theatre have not yet reached. The Novaya opera guys are not naive in this regard - just look at their roster of other shows and the directors who have worked there.*

Actually, what I liked most about this production was how the "traditional" approach highlighted the pre-modernist aspects of the piece. Vyacheslav Okunev's sets are fussy, cramped, sort of realistic, but are wonderfully garishly lit, and there are even nods to old style painted backdrops - wrinkled sheets, lit from the side, which can only have been done to exaggerate the oldy-worldy self conscious kitsch. Costumes are in a similar sort of style - what you'd imagine from a Zeffirelli production. The opera's subject matter almost couldn't be worse in the current political climate surrounding Russia and the Ukraine, but there's no political subtext explored in this direction, though it's impossible not to think about it whilst watching. Women are constantly being mistreated and carried off against their will - strong shades of David McVicar then, which on its own tells you it's not an old school production. The first half fails to stir as there is a weak attempt at some story telling: the music and libretto simply prevents this from happening, along with the meagre acting talents of all those on stage. The second half is much better, as the production lapses into pageantry and strangeness - every character simply standing centre stage and singing while some sort of choreographed motion goes on behind them. We get a series of contrasted numbers with very little forward dramatic thrust, but each stage picture is so pleasingly done, with its kitsch lighting, unsophisticated dancing, sequins, glitter, touching spectacle, and it follows the ultra static, anti-Teutonic musico-dramatic design so faithfully that I found it impossible to resist. The Polovskian dances, by far the most famous music in the piece, get a particularly wonderful treatment which almost defies description; I really liked the human horses and the girl dancing in a huge metal bowl. It all ends abruptly with a reconciliatory duet that comes from nowhere and then a final beautiful unaccompanied chorus which my neighbour said she had never heard in the score before. There's an amateurish air to all this lavishness, but then the music feels exactly the same aesthetically, so the production to me seems to alchemically capture something very important about the piece.

Singing is universally very solid and decent, without ever being very personal. Elena Popovskaya is very rocky as Yaroslavna in the first half, but then spins some absolutely gorgeous lines in the second half - almost didn't seem like the same singer (perhaps she wasn't?? see below**). Sergey Artamonov's Igor is orotund and impressive, as is Vladimir Kudashev as Konchak the Khan, both in a generically slavic sounding way. Agunda Kulaeva also stood out as a very deep sounding mezzo, seductively contraltoish in the low range, and her lover, Vladimir, was sung with a very firm and quite lovely lyric tenor by Aleksey Tatarintsev. The orchestra are quite average in Jan Latham-Koenig's hands, though the sheer noise and frenetic bluster of the score in various moments is enough to raise a smile, even if ridiculously loud timpani and parping brass decimate any sense of orchestral blend in the loud parts.

All in all a good evening, which improved as it went on and stopped trying to be a piece of serious theatre. There is a place for this sort of thing, and this is the opera for it.

*In my experience of talking to many, many opera goers, most people who insist on "traditional productions" which "match the composer's intentions" actually have very, very little historical knowledge of how the works were originally staged or what the composer actually wrote was their intention in writing a piece or the composer's attitudes to stagings, and also are not at all sensitive to genuine stylistic/historical accuracy - any combination of sequins, crinolines, embroidery, corsets, waistcoats, silks, gauze, stockings and robes seems to be fine so long as it's in a realistic looking set with candles.

**There was an odd moment in the second half when the curtain was brought down and then separated as if someone was going to make an announcement, but then nothing happened and the opera continued. It finished 20 minutes before the published time, and the ending seemed very sudden, so I wonder if something was simply cut out of the original plan due to one of the leads being unable to continue. Who knows when every performance of Prince Igor uses a new version! It didn't hugely matter.

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