Borodin, Prince Igor, 1890

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Synopsis   Libretto Nabokov’s translation of the lay.

Friday 1st December

The music

"Respectable people do not write music or make love as a career." Borodin.  Alexander Borodin (1833 –1887) is the only one of our composers for whom music was not a career. He held the chair in chemistry at Medical-Surgical academy, and acting on his views about equality of women he founded and ran the St.Petersburg Medical School for Women. He wrote: "In winter I can only compose when I am too unwell to give my lectures. So my friends, reversing the usual custom, never say to me, ‘I hope you are well’ but ‘I do hope you are ill.’ At Christmas I had influenza, so I stayed at home and wrote the Thanksgiving Chorus in the last act of ‘Igor.’"   [Musicwithease]  But despite being first a doctor and chemist, he was one of the Mighty Handful of composers aiming for a classical music that was Russian.   Trivia question: which Russian composer of the nineteenth century won a Tony Award? Central to the opera is the way the Russians are distinguished from the Polovtsians through melodic characterization. While Borodin uses features of Russian folk music to represent his compatriots, he uses chromaticism, melismas and appoggiaturas—among other techniques—represent their 'heathen' opponents. These methods had already been used by Glinka and others to portray Orientalism in Russian music.  [Wikipedia-Prince Igor]

The legend

Igor Svyatoslavich the Brave is Prince of North Novgorod; his unsuccessful campaign against the nomadic Cumans is recorded in the epic, “The Lay of Igor’s Campaign”. The Lay is far from flattering to the Prince. Although he is described as a brave warrior who wanted to free his land from the nomads, he is also shown as foolish, continuing his campaign while ignoring the fact that he is doomed to fail. The only driving force behind his decision is vanity. His quest for glory is likened to the solar eclipse, which keeps him from seeing clearly. [Russiapedia] The Tale has been compared to other national epics, including The Song of Roland and The Song of the Nibelungs. The book however differs from contemporary Western epics on account of its numerous and vivid descriptions of nature and the portrayal of the role which nature plays in human lives. [Wikipedia with interesting links] The total solar eclipse of 1 May 1185 precisely dates Igor’s campaign.

Our Production

Mariinsky 1998  very trad.  Cast. Cond. Gergiev. Watch Part 1, Part 2.

Compare the Met

With the notoriously eroticised Polovtsian Dance. It was a co-production with Dutch National Opera, which unlike the Met gives us info and  trailersNYTimes review. Compare with this critic’s conclusion. Live in HD 2014.