Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi Trieste 2019 Review: Prince Igor

A Visual Marvel That Plays To The Strengths of Borodin’s Masterwork

By Alan Neilson

Romantic Nationalism was not so much an aggressive promotion of nationalism, but rather a rediscovery and assertion of a nation’s culture, more akin to a patriotic celebration, although it did not always deliberately eschew a more aggressive stance.

It roots were interwoven within the wider Romantic movement, and its manifestations blossomed in many different countries at various times, but most notably in Russia and Eastern Europe during the latter half of the 19th century in the works of such composers as Mussorgsky, Dvorak and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Watching a production of “Boris Godunov” it is immediately clear that this is a Russian opera, with Russian music set in a Russian historical context, but importantly the drama itself centers on the intense psychological breakdown of Boris. The nationalist elements, although powerfully presented, act as a framework for the drama. However, watching Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi Trieste’s production of Borodin’s “Prince Igor,” (in a production borrowed from the Odessa National Theatre of Opera), it was apparent that the nationalist context of this opera is also essentially its content, the drama being little more than a vehicle for glorifying Russian music, its history, its national character and traditions.

Narrative Scope & Changes

The narrative, loosely based on historical events, is set in 12th century Russia. Prince Igor sets off on a campaign against the Polovtsians, is defeated and captured, but eventually escapes and returns to his home city as its saviour. There are also a couple of subplots; Igor’s son falls in love with the daughter of the Polovtsian Khan, and secondly Igor’s brother-in-law, Vladimir Jaroslavich, who has been left to rule the city by Igor, runs amok. It is a tale of epic proportions, which sprawls over time and space, encompasses a wide range of characters from all strata of society, ranging from western Russia to its oriental east. Structurally it is a grand undertaking, but one Borodin ultimately failed to manage effectively as individual stories within the whole scheme are not fully developed or are allowed to tail off, without a conclusion, and the dance scenes are too obviously superfluous. Unfortunately, in this production it was decided to cut Act three, which meant that the Polovtsian celebrations and the Russian soldiers lament following their defeat was lost along with other events, which ultimately magnified the work’s dramatic weaknesses.

Yet, this production was by no means a disaster, in fact it was quite the opposite! It was spectacle at its best, full of colour, beautiful costumes, rousing full-blooded choruses and striking choreographed dance scenes. Moreover, it was a musical feast, by turn it was energetic and gripping, atmospheric and entrancing, its orchestra and singers excellent. The musicologist, Carl Dahlhaus said of “Prince Igor” that it was an “operatic picture book,” and on the evidence of this presentation his pithy comment sums up the opera up perfectly. Of course, on an intellectual level it does not offer a great deal; all one needs to do is sit back and enjoy the experience.

Playing to Its Strengths

The director, Stanislaw Guadasinsky, clearly aware of the opera’s shortcomings, played up to its strengths. He did little to aid the dramatic cohesion or its dynamic drive, but instead opted to focus his efforts on promoting the work as a spectacle, in what was an uncompromising traditional presentation.

The initial impressions were, however, not particularly promising; the scenery designed by Tatiana Astafieva amounted to little more than a roughly painted backcloth, reminiscent of an amateur theater company, and the props were basic at best.

However, the lighting, expertly designed by Vyasheslev Usherenko, and the colorful costumes more than compensated, and actually brought the best out from the scenery. Even the lack of props proved to be the correct decision, as it allowed the large choral scenes to dominate, which were marvelously staged. The centerpiece was undoubtedly the famous Polovtsian dances scene, which was splendidly presented and choreographed: set in the Polovtsian camp, with the Khan and his prisoner, Igor, seated on the right side of the stage outside a large tent surrounded by guards, and the back of the stage full of female onlookers and more guards, the dancers in traditional oriental costumes, who entered and exited from the sides, produced a dazzling display under the night sky, in what was a visually stunning and musically gripping scene.

Matching the Spectacle

In fact, the musical side of the presentation more than equaled the visual spectacle. The singers all produced high quality performances, some outstandingly so, although their acting abilities were inconsistent, with many adopting either a stand and deliver approach or simply relied on exaggerated postures, which at times bordered on caricature.

The title role of Prince Igor was played by Alexy Zhmudenko, who cut an imposing figure, and brought the necessary authority and presence to the part. He has a powerful and warm sounding bass, and produced a forceful and expressive performance, although his acting lacked a little spontaneity. His delivery of the aria, “No sleep, no rest for my tormented soul,” founded upon the strength, precision and the flexibility of his voice, was compelling, and proved to be the highlight of his performance.

The soprano, Anna Litvinova, made an excellent impression as Igor’s wife, Jaroslavna, producing an expressive and intense performance. Her voice has an attractive, clear timbre, with a beautiful legato, which she used effectively to develop her character, spinning out well-crafted phrases, founded upon her vocal flexibility and ability to subtly manage dynamics and vocal inflections; in her aria at the beginning of the opera’s final scene, “Oh, I weep, I weep bitterly,” in which she laments the fate of her beloved Russia and of her husband, she superbly captured the deep sadness felt by Jaroslava. Moreover the voice is strong and well-focused; during the council scene, in which Jaraslava meets with the Boyars to discuss the Polvatsian invasion, Litvinova voice soared gracefully above the male chorus, demonstrably asserting the primacy of her position.

Prince Igor’s son, Vladimir Igorevich was parted by the tenor, Vladislav Goray, who gave a confident performance. His voice has a bright, attractive timbre, it is well supported and strong across the range. However, by focusing on beauty at the expense of characterization his singing was dramatically a little flat, albeit it a pleasing and attractive performance; this was perfectly illustrated in his cavatina “Oh where are you, where?” which was delight to listen to, but did little to develop the character. The impression was amplified by his acting which consisted in broad gestures, with little subtlety.

The Khan’s daughter, Konchakovna was played by the mezzo-soprano Katerina Tsymbalyuk. She possesses a richly colored voice, with a beguiling, sultry dark undertone, which she used to spin out lines of delicate beauty. Her love duet with Goray, “Is that you, my Vladimir?” was sung with real passion, their contrasting voices combining seamlessly in a pleasing rendition.

The bass-baritone, Dmitry Pavlyuk, playing the part of the would-be tyrant Vladimir Jaroslavich, certainly looked the part, and his characterization as a sly, vicious brute just about managed to stop short of a descent into a pantomime villain. He has a strong versatile voice, and displayed skill in his ability to bring depth to the character, which was nicely illustrated in his aria, “If I were to become…” in which he muses on what he would do if he were in Igor’s place. It was a confident and convincing performance, in which his venom was always lurking in his vocal undertones.

Viktor Shevchenko created a powerful visual impression as the Khan, Kontchak. He is a mountain of a man, and looked truly ferocious, with his long black beard and dressed in a flamboyant oriental red and black costume. His dark gravelly bass displayed real depth, and has an attractive timbre. Although the voice lacks a degree of agility he nevertheless crafted his lines with subtlety, and projected their meaning effectively. His second act exchanges with Zhmudenko in which the two basses were pitted against each other was a heavy weight affair, and provided an interesting vocal comparison.

Lighter Touches

The lighter moments in the opera are provided by the two Gudok (a three stringed traditional Russian instrument) players, Skula and Eroska, who were essayed by the bass, Yuri Dudar and the tenor, Alexander Prokopovich. Working in tandem throughout, they produced a sympathetic portrayal of a couple of chancers, always on the look out for a good opportunity.

Both sang well, and managed to elicit the full comedic potential from the parts. Dudar in particular displayed a strong stage presence and a real flair for sending-up the role. Moreover, his singing was equally impressive. Prokopovich made an excellent counterpart to Dudar, his clear sounding tenor was well-suited to the part, and although he tended to over-egg the comedy, which occasionally descended into parody, he put in a strong and lively performance. Their Act two song “You play, play,” in which they mock Prince Igor was cleverly directed, so that the sudden realisation of Prince Igor’s arrival was also mildly amusing.

The soprano, Alina Vorokh, made the most of her small role as a young maiden, who opened the second act with a delightful aria, “Without water, under the midday sun.” The seductive tone of her voice and the subtlety of her coloratura producing a beautifully sung rendition.

The Coro del Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi di Trieste had a large role to perform, and under the direction of its chorus master, Francesca Tosi, produced an arresting performance that truly sparkled, and which it would be fair to say, did as much as any of the soloist to make the production such a success. The male and female choruses both sang with energy and attention to the dramatic context, and when they combined filled the auditorium with an electrifying sound.

The conductor, Igor Chernetski, elicited an energetic and wonderfully vibrant sound from the Orchestra del Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi di Trieste. Attentive at all times to the rhythmic and dynamic subtleties of the score, Chernetski drove the music forward in a powerful and engaging reading, yet at the same time, was able to bring out the beautiful contrasts within the score. He successfully aligned the orchestral sound to the onstage drama, and the dance music absolutely dazzled with its wide variety of colours. Moreover, he showed real skill in balancing such an array of forces, particularly with regard to the orchestra and chorus.

The final scene ended with chorus of praise to the Prince and to the glories of Russia and its people, overlooked by an icon of the Madonna bathed in a blue light, with the famous Russian bells suspended from above, in a production that made no attempt whatsoever to present the work as anything other than what it was – a nationalist work which celebrated its own cultural history, with minimal concern given to its structural dramatic weaknesses.

As a theatrical spectacle it was absolutely fabulous!


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