NEW YORK (AP) — You heard it at the opening ceremony in Sochi. You know it from the pop standard "Stranger in Paradise."
Alexander Borodin's "Prince Igor" is the opera everyone can hum but few have seen.
In part, that's because when the composer died in 1887, he had completed only fragments of his projected four-act epic. Fellow Russians Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov orchestrated the rest from Borodin's sketches and even wrote new music to fill in gaps.
Now, 97 years after it last staged "Prince Igor," the Metropolitan Opera has mounted a spectacular new production by director Dmitri Tcherniakov starring Russian bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role. It will be broadcast live in HD to movie theaters around the world on Saturday.
Tcherniakov has turned away from the conventional portrayal of the 12th century Igor as a nationalist hero intent on repelling an invasion by the barbaric Polovtsians. Instead, Tcherniakov sees the character as a tormented figure who wages war for personal, selfish reasons.
The slogan displayed above the stage before the opera's prologue gives the audience its first clue: "To unleash a war is the surest way to escape oneself."
"During rehearsals we discussed the fact that Igor is in fact the aggressor," Tcherniakov said in an interview at the Met, assisted occasionally by a translator, a few days after the opening in early February.
"Everything suggests that it's a bad idea, to go to war. And he nevertheless insists," the Russian director said. "He has some kind of private crisis. He needs to change his life."
Once Igor leads his army eastward, Tcherniakov shows us the disastrous results in video projections of soldiers being slaughtered in battle. We next see Igor in captivity in the Polovtsian camp — depicted here as a lush, wide-open field of red poppies, in stark contrast to the prince's forbidding walled city-state of Putivl.
"The musical score prompts this idea, because Borodin creates a picture of the Polovtsian camp as a utopian place of happiness and freedom, not a frightening place of danger and captivity," Tcherniakov said. "It's like it's in his mind, a hallucination that's happening — only in the mind of a traumatized and unhappy person."
In fact, Tcherniakov has staged this scene as a dream sequence in which the gravely wounded Igor encounters the various characters one by one. And it's here that he is entertained by the famous "Polovtsian Dances."
But exotic and blissful though his new life might become, Igor is bound by a sense of duty and eventually escapes and returns to Putivl, which by now is in ruins.
"When he comes back to the motherland, he is full of guilt feelings, because his private desires have provoked the deaths of so many people," Tcherniakov said. "He punishes himself, and he is ready to say, 'I don't want to be your leader. I am so bad. I destroyed everything. It's all my fault.'"
Still, the production ends on an optimistic note, as Igor leads his people in making a modest start at renewing their community. "His example inspires the beginning of building a new life," Tcherniakov said.
To strengthen his psychological vision of the story, the 43-year-old director, much admired in Europe for his provocative interpretations, has rearranged the usual order of the opera's scenes. He and conductor Gianandrea Noseda have also discarded all the music written by others and supplemented the score with music from another Borodin work.
Next on Tcherniakov's schedule are revivals of two productions of Rimsky-Korsakov operas: "The Tsar's Bride" in Milan, Italy, and "The Invisible City of Kitezh" in Barcelona, Spain. Next season he'll tackle new productions of Wagner's "Parsifal" and Berg's "Lulu" in Europe.
And the Met? General Manager Peter Gelb said he is "eager" to have Tcherniakov back and they are discussing "several possible titles for the future."