Just like in Sochi, lines were long during the intermissions for “Prince Igor” at the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday, where the opera has not been seen since 1917. Bring sustenance and a flask.
Composing chemist Alexander Borodin (1833-87) spent so much time puzzling over urea that he never finished his opera about a medieval prince whose military ambitions left him shattered and his city in ruins.
Expanding his sketches, friends Alexander Glazunov and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov created a performance version that most everyone likes to complain about. No good deeds ever go unpunished.
Lesser talents recycled “The Polovtsian Dances” into “Kismet,” thus providing Tony Bennett with “Stranger in Paradise” and Vladimir Putin with a tune for Sochi’s opening ceremonies.
This unusual new production by Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov (making his Met debut) and conductor Gianandrea Noseda includes rediscovered bits of Borodin, strips out inventions by his two friends, including an overture, and dramatically changes the order of scenes.
The story flows better, but only the Dnieper is longer. By the time Prince Igor returns home from Central Asia to rubbled Putivl, nearly four and a half hours have passed and we were left wondering why he couldn’t find a few short cuts.
Who is this version aimed at? Musicologists who want to hear every scrap of notepaper Borodin stuffed next to his pipettes? An opportunity has been lost to make “Igor” a regular addition to the repertoire.
Nonetheless, it was clear that the show belonged to the hugely talented Tcherniakov, a director who also designs his own sets. These were terrific: neither abstract nor period medieval, they took us into more universal realms of fear, longing and despair.
At the outset, a weird light suddenly suffuses Igor’s timbered hall as fierce winds blow through the doors and frighten the swirling crowds. Heaven clearly doesn’t look kindly on Prince Igor’s campaign against a faraway Khan.
Searing video images created by S. Katy Tucker in her Met debut show us the folly of his crusade. His weeping soldiers reveal their wounds as they look out at us -- the victims of his grand vision and that of so many other megalomaniacs.
In a strangely beautiful if endless scene, he reviews his actions while drifting through a dreamy field of blood-red poppies.
Ildar Abdrazakov, Russia’s great bass, was magnificent, especially in Igor’s grieving aria. Stefan Kocan was amusing if vocally underpowered as the unusually gracious Khan Konchak. (Here, Dear Guest, take my best horse and escape if you are sad.) Mikhail Petrenko, also not in voice, died fabulously when a falling ceiling ended his louche ways as Galitsky, Igor’s repulsive brother-in-law.
Sergey Semishkur showed off a bright tenor in his very promising debut as Igor’s son. Oksana Dyka, also new to the Met, sang with brilliance and ease as Prince Igor’s wife, while Anita Rachvelishvili lavished her big, beautiful mezzo on the main Polovtsian maiden.
All seemed energized by the electrifying pace set by Noseda. The orchestra played splendidly for this inspiring Italian whose passport should be confiscated so he can never leave. The Met needs conductors like Noseda now that James Levine, the music director, has turned into a beloved figurehead.
I left the Met pondering a quote that appeared over the pit at the opera’s start: “To unleash a war is the surest way to escape from yourself.” That might go for vast winter athletic spectacles as well.
“Prince Igor” plays at the Metropolitan Opera in repertoire until March 8. The live telecast is on Saturday, March 1.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.)