Great Performances: ‘Prince Igor’

You might not have seen a production of Borodin’s “Prince Igor,” but you’ll be familiar with some of the music. This new production on PBS Great Performances under the director Dmitri Tcherniakov, starring Ildar Abdrazakov as the titular character, is visually gorgeous.

“Prince Igor” was performed at the Met ten times between 1915 and 1917 in Italian translation. The opera was performed regularly in other places. In Russia, it is understandably part of the standard operatic repertory. Robert Wright and George Forrest adapted parts of the score and used other Borodin compositions to make the Broadway musical “Kismet.” The songs “Stranger in Paradise” and “This Is My Beloved” were based on Borodin’s music and Borodin received a posthumous Tony Award for “Kismet” (Best Musical, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical, Best Conductor and Musical Director). “Kismet” story has nothing to do with Prince Igor or Russian history and instead deals with a poet whose daughter falls in love with the Caliph.

For the Met, conductor Gianandrea Noseda and Tcherniakov constructed a new edition of the opera using recent research that incorporates all the known music and orchestration by Borodin. Noseda is a specialist in Russian music. Besides re-ordering some of the scenes, Noseda and Tcherniakov have added three new pieces by Russian composer and conductor Pavel Smelkov. The result is a beautiful reimagining of Prince Igor, transporting it from what have been a less glamorous historical time period to the pomp and circumstance of the late 1800s. Bringing the action from the 1200s to the time period of Borodin allows for colorful and well-constructed Victorian era uniforms and the inclusion of modern dance.

Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin (1833-1887) was born in Saint Petersburg, the illegitimate son of Luka Gedevanishvili. He received a medical education and spent a year as a surgeon in a military hospital, but by 1862 he was the chair of chemistry at the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy. He researched and lectured.

Borodin also married a pianist in 1863. He had previously taken piano lessons as a boy and began taking lessons in composition in 1862. While he was well respected as a chemist, he was also respected enough amongst musicians and composers that Franz Liszt organized a performance of one of his pieces (Symphony No. 1) in Germany.

“Prince Igor” is a four-act opera that uses an East Slavic epic poem “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” for the libretto. Borodin died suddenly in 1887 leaving the opera unfinished. The opera was edited and completed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov and was first performed in 1890 in Russia.

The real Prince Igor (Svyatoslavich the Brave) lived from about 1151 to 1201. “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” tells of Igor’s failed campaign against the Polovtsians in the Don River region.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens’ hosts this broadcast. Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka plays Igor’s second wife, Yaroslavna. Anita Rachvelishvili is Polovtsian princess Konchakovna, Russian tenor Sergey Semishkur is Igor’s son by his first marriage, Vladimir Igorevich and Mikhail Petrenko is Yaroslavna’s brother, Prince Galitsky. Stefan Kocan is Khan Konchak, the leader of the Polovtsian forces.


In the prologue, we see see the city-state of Putivl in its splendor. Prince Igor and his son Vladimir gathers his army, readying for a campaign against the Polovtsians. A solar eclipse is taken as a bad omen and Prince Igor’s inner circle of nobles beg him to postpone the campaign. Igor’s wife, Yaroslavna, pleads for Igor to remain home.

Two soldiers, Skula and Yeroshka, decide to desert, but the Prince cannot be dissuaded. Leaving his wife in the care of her brother, Prince Vladimir Galitsky, the Prince Igor and son Vladimir leave.

Act I is on the Polovtsian steppes and Prince Igor’s army has been destroyed. He’s been taken prisoner by the chief of the Polovtsians, Khan Konchak. Igor remembers everything that went wrong. Konchakovna is in love with the son Vladimir. Khan doesn’t meant to treat Igor as his prisoner; Khan offers his friendship and treats Igor as a guest of honor.

In Act II, the action transfers to Yaroslavna’s palace where Yaroslavna is having nightmares. Young maidens come to warn Yaroslavna that her brother had abducted a girl, one of their friends, and they ask that the girl be returned. Yet Yaroslavna doesn’t have the power to deal with her brother. and Galitsky threatens both his sister and Igor.

Prince Galitsky returns to his men and a drunken feast. He hopes to send his sister to a nunnery and replace Igor as the Prince of Putivl. Deserters Skula and Yeroshka are amongst Galitsky’s syncophants. The maidens come to rescue their friends and the drunken men laugh at them and chase them away.

Back at Yaroslavna’s palace, she receives news of the Igor’s defeat and capture. Galitsky and his men revolt, but the enemy is advancing on Putivl. Galitsky’s revolt fails with the death of Galitsky.

In Act III, Putivl is now in ruins. Yaroslavna has lost hope of seeing her husband again, but Igor has escapted and returns to the destroyed Putivl. The drunk deserters Skula and Yeroshka discover Igor and to cover up their treason, they summon the people to celebrate his return. Igor is ashamed and interrupts the celebration and blames his ambition for the destruction and calls upon the people to unit and rebuild the city.

“Prince Igor” will be broadcast on Great Performances at the Met on Sunday, 22 June 2014 at 12 noon on PBS. Check local listings.

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