One night before the start of Sochi’s Winter Olympics, the Metropolitan Opera held a Russian opening ceremony of its own. Thursday, Feb. 6 was the premiere performance of Alexander Borodin’s sprawling opera, “Prince Igor.” This new production by Dmitri Tcherniakov marks the work’s second appearance on the Met’s stage since 1917, and although the company’s musical forces were at their best, the inconsistency of the staging disappointed in key moments.
The opera is based on a 12th-century Russian military campaign led by Prince Igor Svyatoslavich. The piece brims with rousing choruses, quintessentially Russian melodies, and even an extended ballet. Any staging must tackle the grandiosity of the plot, but in this regard, Tcherniakov only partially succeeds.
His greatest failing comes in the first act, which is made up of two scenes juxtaposing the formality of Igor’s palace and the exoticism of the foreign Polovtsians. This was a dramatic misfire, as Tcherniakov’s concept lacks much of a clear point of view.
A field of oversized flowers, an anachronistic blend of costumes, and tacky video projections offer little insight into the plot. Fortunately, once the story returns to Igor’s court, the director tightens his focus and the drama becomes much more engaging.
The Met’s superb orchestra and chorus are the clear standouts of the evening. Under the baton of veteran maestro Gianandrea Noseda, the Met Orchestra offers a colorful, textured, and buoyant reading of a score teeming with varied musical styles.
The chorus has never sounded better. Its sound throughout the performance is penetrating but always polished. A special treat comes during the celebrated Polovtsian Dances. The huge ensemble perches on the sides of the auditorium, adding excitement to its already dynamic quality.
In the title role, bass Ildar Abdrazakov is, at times, underwhelming. Despite a rich timbre, he struggles to command the stage early in the performance. Fortunately, Abdrazakov rallies in the final act and ultimately delivers a stirring performance.
Making her Met debut as Igor’s despairing wife, soprano Oksana Dyka brings focused singing and clear high notes to the distressed character. If her acting borders on stilted, her vocals are imbued with more than enough affecting melancholy.
Surely the weakest vocal performance of the night comes from baritone Mikhail Petrenko as the lecherous Prince Galitzky. In attempts at forcefulness, Petrenko merely strains in his upper register. By contrast, tenor Sergey Semishkur, also making his debut, has a bright and expansive tone appropriate for his role as Igor’s youthful son, Vladimir.
Semishkur is nicely paired with Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili as Konchakovna. Rachvelishvili combines a dark earthiness and gutsy intensity to offer a blazing portrayal. And despite his ridiculous attire, Stefan Kocán brings his resonant bass to the role of the Polovtsian ruler Khan Konchak.
This grand saga may be overly daunting for Columbia students with little operatic experience, but the work itself makes a great case for the grandeur of Russian opera. While Tcherniakov’s production is far from a revelation, it eventually manages to offer some striking moments, and the spirit of Borodin’s homeland is evident throughout in this sweeping score.
“Prince Igor” runs through March 8 at the Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center Plaza. Tickets start at $20.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that this production of “Prince Igor” was the second time it has been put on at the Metropolitan Opera. In fact, it is it’s third appearance on the Met’s stage, there was a production in 1998. Spectator regrets the error.