Prince Igor in Amsterdam

Borodin’s Prince Igor is a ramshackle affair, a series of episodes – personal and political – loosely strung together with some fine music. It needs a strong directorial hand and in Dmitry Tcherniakov, restaging for the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam a production created at the New York Met in 2014, it certainly had that. For him it becomes a piece about the evils of war. Many of the events take place in Prince Igor’s mind as, a captive of the Polovtsians, he lies wounded reflecting on the follies of militarism, the sardonic brutality of his brother-in-law Galitsky, and  the strong loyalty (or is it?) of his wife, contrasting all of this with the freshness of young love. It was a bold approach and gave rise to a powerful and moving ending as Igor staggers around the city of Putivl vainly trying to restore its destroyed buildings.

And yet I was not fully engaged in the musical drama. The problem arose, I think, from a lack of concordance between the visual and aural dimensions. While there is continuity in Borodin’s musical idiom, there was no stylistic unity in Tcherniakov’s staging. The latter ranged from caricatural expressionism, through fantasy to brutal naturalism; and this made it difficult to relate from one tableau to another and to empathise with the characters and with what they were singing. To give one example, for the scene (Act One in this version; Act Two in most other versions) which reflects Igor’s musings when a prisoner, the stage was covered with red poppies, symbolic of First World War massacres. This worked well initially to complement a screened video of the wounded prince, but then had to serve as the background to a series of personal encounters for which it was intrusive and distracting.

Musically the performance was of a high order. The conductor Stanislav Kochanovsky, with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, created a haunting sound world, shifting between desolation and grotesque savagery; and the cast, largely Russian, brought authenticity to their singing. In the title role, Ildar Abdrazakov deployed his sonorous, warm bass most effectively to communicate introspection and self-doubt. In contrast, the other impressive bass Dmitry Ulyanov, who doubled as Galitsky and the Polovtsian Khan, relished the opportunities for black humour and worldly self-assurance. There were also excellent comic contributions from Vladimir Ognovenko and Andrei Popov as the soldier duo of Skoela and Jerosjka.

The evening was a long one – the work could usefully have been cut by half an hour – but with an interesting if flawed production and committed performances from all involved it was  certainly worth the visit.