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It's hard for scholars to appreciate how amateur Alexander Borodin could have composed any kind of magnum opus. Unlike Russian icons Rubenstein and Tchaikovsky, Borodin wrote music during his off-hours or when he was simply too sick to carry out his duties as a professor of organic chemistry in St. Petersburg. Today he's best remembered as the composer of Prince Igor, whose haunting Oriental melodies and "Polovtsian Dances" are familiar to many, despite the fact that the unfinished score ultimately was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov after Borodin's death.
Posthumous tinkerings aside, the opera's thinly developed plot presents problems for a stage director. Shifting between the courts of a Russian prince and a Tartar chieftain, the narrative stiffly plods its way through one city's trials in the absence of a ruler.
With its first-ever staging of Igor, Houston Grand Opera struggles with these elements, but an inspired principal cast of Russian singers and director Francesca Zambello's skillful staging of an ebullient second act manage to overcome Borodin's thudding, sorrily dramatized first act. In the first half, the production suffers from a couple of wrongheaded directorial interpretations, while the main set contraption appears awkwardly placed. But Borodin's music makes you forget these dramatic lapses. The cast, led by Russian conductor Alexander Anissimov and the HGO Orchestra, succeeds in capturing the forlorn beauty of the land of perennial winter.
Zambello sets the tale in late-19th-century czarist Russia instead of the 12th-century feudal court Borodin envisioned. The opening scenes find citizens sporting Edwardian parasols and peasant shawls, paying homage to Igor beneath the towering Corinthian columns of his palace facade. Although Igor's countrymen grow superstitious about his leaving to fight a troublesome Tartar tribe, the prince ignores their pleas, determined to quell the Polovtsians.
In Igor's absence, his brother-in-law Prince Galitsky, who aspires to overthrow him, flouts the authority of his sister Princess Yaroslavna by pursuing a hedonistic lifestyle. Meanwhile, Igor and his son Vladimir are taken captive by Konchak, the Polovtsian leader. Though Konchak respects Igor and treats him honorably, the prince eventually escapes with the help of a Christian tribe member and is reunited with his wife and kingdom.
As Igor, Russian baritone Sergei Leiferkus finds the latent dignity and modest grandeur buried deeply within the composer's meagerly fleshed-out role. The role of Igor's son Vladimir is sung with pearly clarity by Russian tenor Vsevolod Grivnov, especially in duets with sultry mezzo-soprano Mzia Nioradze as the tribal chieftain's daughter. Likewise, Russian bass-baritone Vladimir Vaneev solidly portrays the honorable scarlet-robed barbarian Konchak. Ironically, Russian bass-baritone Vladimir Ognovenko's lusty interpretation of Prince Galitsky makes this lesser role more memorable, mostly because the part is better written than the others.
Equally as complex as Galitsky is Igor's wife, Yaroslavna. Bulgarian soprano Zvetelina Vassileva, who possesses a stunningly facile command, cuts a stoic, queenly figure during several mournful odes to her husband and homeland. As her feminine counterpart in the Polovtsian court, Georgian Nioradze is voluptuous and unwavering as Konchak's daughter.
"Polovtsian Dances," whose melody infuses the more familiar "Stranger in Paradise" from the musical Kismet, is choreographed by Alphonse Poulin and deftly threaded through the narrative. The first interlude, introduced as Konchak attempts to cheer up a captive Igor, features a pair of mature Georgian dancers who have performed together since age 17. The accompanying Oriental woodwind strains are wildly ethereal and frenetic. The contrast with the ponderous Slavic majesty of the first act is obvious, making you wonder if Borodin had a Turkish mistress of his own as a bit of personal inspiration.
Zambello's conceptions are not always airtight, like in Act I when several women visit Galitsky's court to protest the abduction of a young maiden. Sporting kitchen whisks and dowdy shawls, they look more like old matrons than imploring innocents, and protest far too boldly before a leader that could easily crush them.
Also puzzling is set designer Zack Brown's stylized multilevel platform, the centerpiece of Igor's palace, constructed with intertwining staircases and girders that can be shifted to look like a rampart. Early in the first act, the set works well when Igor and Yaroslavna survey the square like monarchs hovering over a piazza. But for the ground-level scenes, the girders jut out annoyingly and swallow the stage. When the princess confronts Galitsky about abducting the maiden, the two appear to address each another between bleacher poles in a baseball stadium.
But once Igor returns home late in Act III, Zambello's vision and Brown's set design work harmoniously. Bulky steel palatial remnants conjure up a Kafkaesque devastation that looks hauntingly familiar. As Yaroslavna and the chorus cry sorrowfully over their ravaged homeland, with a light snow falling on them, we're left with a quintessentially bleak vision of mother Russia.