Strikes in Paris have led to the cancellation of some performances in the run of Prince Igor at Opéra Bastille. Parisian opera-goers are devastated — after all, for many, it is a missed opportunity to boo Barrie Kosky. Expectations were high for Opéra de Paris’ first production of Borodin’s grandiose, unfinished opera (with the ideal Slavic cast and no shortage of Russian basses), marking the Australian director’s company debut. Eliminating the entire third act, with the exception of Prince Igor’s monologue, Kosky placed the focus squarely on power and its abuse, themes that resonate uncomfortably in today’s political landscape. And while the musicians received enthusiastic ovations at curtain call, Kosky and his creative team have been equally enthusiastically booed.

Dimitry Ivashchenko and Ildar Abdrazakov in Prince Igor. Photo © Agathe Poupeney

The chorus impresses from the opening fanfare of  ‘slava’ – ‘glory’ – as a rugged Ildar Abdrazakov, in the title role, announces Russia’s military campaign against the Polovtsians, atop his throne in a resplendent gilded nave crowned with neon cross. Rather than staging the eclipse that augurs doom as part of the lighting design (Franck Evin), it seems to pass viscerally through the sovereign’s body as premonitory convulsions.

The contrast with the ‘glory’ proclaimed by the chorus in the following scene could not be in starker, bitterly ironic contrast, with Prince Galitski (Russian bass Dmitry Ulyanov in a thankless role that he embraces fully, though vocally lacking heft) and his men raping and pillaging in the reigning prince’s absence. Chest-thumping, gang-banging soldiers casually wield their weapons to traditional Russian festive tunes at a grotesque palace pool party (yes, a pool on stage and not one but two suckling pigs to rip into). It is a gaudily barbaric scene, provoking much discontent in the audience, but it is also a scene of feminine pathos, with Prince Igor’s wife Yaroslavna (Elena Stikhina) lamenting the lack of news from the Boyards on the battlefield and fearing the worst – in full, luminous soprano tones. She also responds to the plight of traumatised female villagers (in a heartrendingly delicate women’s chorus) and one brutally battered and shell-shocked rape victim… Even for me, making them all nuns seems like overkill. Yaroslavna herself takes up arms at the end of the scene in attempt to snap out of the damsel-in-distress trope.

Elena Stikhina in Prince Igor. Photo © Agathe Poupeney

The entire second act has been placed against the blood-smeared concrete of the enemy camp’s torture chamber, where the daughter of the Polovtsian khan (Georgian mezzo-soprano –  contralto? – Anita Rachvelishvili) transports us to heaven and back with her molasses-rich, sensually siren-like appearance in the dank prison to serenade her beloved Prince Vladimir (Pavel Černoch, who reciprocates in his complementary bright tenor). Her tender aria was the most applauded moment of the opera. Abdrazakov deploys all his dramatic intensity in a gritty bass monologue bristling with shame, survivor’s guilt, patriotism and pride. His adversary and captor (bass Dimitry Ivashchenko) is dangerously debonair and sings with burnished finesse as he engages in a twisted power-play with the wounded, tethered prince. The Polovtsian dances he sets in motion to entertain his ‘guest’ are the moment that everyone was waiting for, one of the best-known and beloved passages in Russian music. The choir and orchestra under Philippe Jordan gave their all in this surging, all-enveloping music. An onslaught of masked dancers in richly detailed and varied costumes (Klaus Bruns) with often primitivist, angular and rhythmic choreography recalling Stravinsky (Otto Pichler) parade through the torture rooms (perversely, malnourished prisoners join the fray). It couldn’t have lasted more than 10 minutes but glory goes to these highly-anticipated dances, the musical and visual climax of the production – I was almost overwhelmed by the power of the chorus.

Adam Palka and Andrei Popov. Photo © Agathe Poupeney

No sooner had the curtain rose on the final act – a desolate highway on the outskirts of the sacked city of Putivl – did rise a chorus of indignant clucks from the Parisian audience. Certainly it is a bleak homecoming for the Prince, but his reunion with Yaroslavna is truly touching. With the help of Skula and Yeroshka (Adam Palka and Andrei Popov, providing light comic relief throughout the action) Kosky transforms this joyous moment for the suffering people into a farce.

Whatever the quibbles with Kosky’s vision of Prince Igor, the staging goes beyond shock value with a strong argument behind each most scenarios, never detracting from the human drama at the heart of the opera. A particularly lively and responsive sound from the pit is a reminder that this is one of Philippe Jordan’s last productions as the departing musical director of the Orchestre de l’Opéra de Paris. Worth seeing for the choirs alone.

Paris Opera’s Price Igor continues at the Opéra Bastille until December 26

Screening in selected cinemas as part of the Palace Opera & Ballet 2019/20 season from February 28 – March 1

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