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Prince Igor is an opera that almost didn't happen. MARINA FROLOVA-WALKER looks at the troubled gestation of composer Alexander Borodin's most famous work.

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Viktor Vasnetsov's 1880 painting "After Prince Igor's Battle with the Polovtsi"
© RIA Novosti/Alamy 2014
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Ilya Repin's portrait of Alexander Borodin
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Rimsky-Korsakov, left, and Glazunov, who together completed Prince Igor
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Alexander Borodin was among the few individuals ever to reach the highest levels in two unconnected fields of human endeavor. He was a celebrated professor of chemistry and an equally celebrated composer, although his musical pursuits usually had to wait for the summer recess each year. In the spring of 1869, however, his friend and artistic mentor Vladimir Stasov persuaded him to work on a new opera. This, Stasov said, was to be based on an ancient Russian epic, The Tale of Igor's Campaign — roughly speaking, the equivalent of Beowulf in Russian literature.

Stasov was an imperious presence in Russian cultural life — a philologist, antiquarian, art historian and music critic. He did not merely shape the careers and sensibilities of individual artists; he successfully mapped out major artistic trends. Now, in the spring of 1869, he had decided on the next big thing for Russian nationalist music. Whatever his standing as a scientist, Borodin the composer was understandably in awe of Stasov. To be entrusted with the task of creating an opera out of this great national epic was intimidating, but in equal measure flattering and exciting. The overburdened Borodin was soon at work on Igor's Campaign

But what kind of opera was he to create? Prince Igor, according to the epic, was blinded by ambition as a military leader, and he set out on an impulsive and premature campaign against the Polovtsi (or Cumans), a nomadic and warlike Turkic people whose power, at its height, stretched from present-day Kazakhstan to southeastern Europe. The epic tells us that Igor ignored the bad omen of a solar eclipse (which would place the events in the year 1185) and then led his troops on to a complete rout at the hands of the Polovtsi. The epic is not shy in depicting the bloody defeat itself, or the consequences of Igor's over-reaching: the Polovtsian khans decided that the neighboring Russian territories had to be subjugated, and once this was achieved, heavy tribute was extracted. Igor was wounded and captured during the battle, but he escaped to freedom later. The epic's moral is contained in a lengthy monologue delivered by Igor's father: he condemns his son and his fellow Russian princes for fighting among themselves instead of mounting a joint defense against the Polovtsi.

This was hardly a vehicle for festive Russian nationalism on the operatic stage. Not only were the Russians defeated and subjugated, but this outcome had been brought about quite needlessly by Russia's own princes. In the hands of Mussorgsky, the epic could have succeeded as a tragic historical opera, but that composer was already immersed in work on Boris Godunov, the story of another Russian ruler who brought devastation and foreign intervention upon his country. Here was the first problem: Borodin, for all his obvious gifts, was not drawn to dramatic or tragic music. As an artist and as a man, he was sanguine in his outlook, and he enjoyed a highly successful career — quite unlike Mussorgsky. True, his domestic life did not run so smooth: he was largely deprived of the company of his beloved wife, who had to move from St. Petersburg to Moscow if she was not to succumb to her tuberculosis. But he bore this stoically. Tragedy was not in his character, and there was no place in his aesthetic for Mussorgsky's unflinching explorations of unpalatable human truths. His brilliance lay in his ability to create music of striking beauty in a fresh idiom of his own that delighted audiences in its evocations of the ancient or the exotic. 

Borodin soon formed the ambition of combining the two operatic types Russian composers had inherited from their great predecessor, Mikhail Glinka. He wanted to recreate the leisurely epic of Ruslan and Lyudmila and its bright palette of exotic colors, but at the same time, he wanted to temper this with the overarching theme of national glorification that shaped A Life for the Tsar. These two models from Glinka are easily detected in Borodin's Igor. The opera begins with a "Glory!" chorus that happily advertises its debt to the finale of A Life. The eclipse scene in Igor revisits Glinka's abduction scene in Ruslan, when an evil magician paralyzes the royal court so that he can abduct Lyudmila. The unshakable loyalty of Lyudmila to her husband, and her stubborn resistance in the face of abuse, is revisited in the still greater courage of Yaroslavna, Igor's wife, who finds herself holding the fort, Penelope-like, against the brutal advances of the power-seeking Prince Galitsky. Perhaps a touch of early feminism animates this impressive soprano part, since one of Borodin's several claims to historical importance stems from his advocacy of women's rights, given concrete form in the college for female medical students that he founded. He certainly went beyond the material offered by his literary source, in which Yaroslavna touchingly laments the fate of her husband but has no political role to play. 

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Ilya Repin's portrait of Vladimir Stasov
© The Art Gallery Collection/Alamy 2014

In official artworks of the time, Russia's peaceable relations with its conquered territories were to be emphasized, rather than the strife of past conquest. Borodin had already provided a prominent example in his symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia, which was originally commissioned as music for a tableau vivant celebrating peace in Russia's newly acquired colonies, intended to mark Alexander II's twenty-fifth anniversary on the throne. But aside from this political motivation, Borodin again found a prototype in Glinka: like Prince Igor, which depicts the romance between Konchak's daughter and Igor's son, Ruslan also presents an agreeable Oriental song-and-dance divertissement and the love of a Russian and an Oriental character. Neither Glinka nor Borodin was tempted to explore the artistic regions of the ugly or terrifying in their portrayals of the enemy. In Borodin's case, this, of course, belies the literary source: the delightfully stirring Polovtsian dances that contributed most to the opera's worldwide fame have nothing to do with the epic. 

With each passing summer, Borodin added new numbers to Igor. The high quality of the writing was evident to Stasov and Borodin's fellow composers of The Five, who repeatedly implored him to unite the many fragments into a performable opera. The 1870s reached their close with the opera still unfinished, and five years later, there was still no end in sight. Although Borodin's life was remarkably busy, it is hard to see this behavior as anything other than a deliberate policy of procrastination. Borodin's horizons rarely extended beyond the adding of new numbers or the reworking of old ones. In all likelihood, Borodin realized that Stasov had unwittingly set a trap for him: how could he reconcile the bitter and self-deprecating self-portrait of Russians in the epic with the festive national opera he actually wanted to write? 

Where Borodin occasionally tried to reflect the character of his epic, he became a reluctant Mussorgskian. For example, in the absence of Igor, his native town of Putivl descends into chaos even before the Polovtsi can mount their attack upon it. Prince Galitsky's debauched revelries spread corruption throughout the town. The drunken musicians who have led the entertainments for Galitsky happen to be the first to notice that Igor has returned, and their jubilant ringing of the church bells leads in to the opera's final apotheosis. The musicians have clear precursors in Mussorgsky, namely the runaway monks, who also switch their allegiance with ease and welcome the Pretender at the end of Boris Godunov. Borodin intended to close his opera with a joyful reception for Igor, rather than the bitter lament he could have found in the epic. But how could Igor possibly inspire joy among the townspeople when he had brought devastation upon them through his recklessness? Though Glinka's Susanin died, his self-sacrifice saved the Tsar, while Ruslan, after all his struggles, got the girl. Glinka's operas earned their right to jubilant finales, but the story of Igor offered no consolations. If the source text had been obscure, a fictitious victory could have been supplied for Igor, but the prestige of this epic precluded such an ad hoc solution. 

On February 27, 1887, after nearly eighteen years of work on the opera, Borodin was struck down by a fatal heart attack. The following day, Rimsky-Korsakov moved all the materials for Igor to his own apartment. He had already rescued Khovanshchina from oblivion after Mussorgsky had left it incomplete on his death; now he would perform the same service for Borodin. The industrious Rimsky-Korsakov had acquired a facility in composition that outstripped the rest of The Five, and when he salvaged his colleagues' incomplete works, the result was always a posthumous collaboration with Rimsky-Korsakov. He was incapable of merely tying up loose ends, and in his efforts to win over the public to the work of his deceased friends, not a single measure was left untouched. He transposed vocal lines as he saw fit, added or removed layers of texture, developed motifs beyond their scope in the original, and so on. In the case of Igor, he also enlisted Alexander Glazunov, then in the early stages of his career as a composer. Glazunov had been close to Borodin over the previous few years, and his music was stylistically and temperamentally similar at this point. While Rimsky-Korsakov busied himself with the recomposition of the existing material, Glazunov was to supply extra numbers to fill gaps in the dramatic scheme that now emerged. 

Rimsky-Korsakov was hardly seeking personal glory: the published vocal score attributed the opera solely to Borodin. The aesthetic (or ethic) of authenticity was of no concern for Rimsky-Korsakov, and it bothered his contemporaries little. Whatever misgivings we may have today, it can hardly be denied that Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov forged a viable opera from material that amounted to no more than a large collection of brilliant fragments. The result was given a successful premiere in 1890, and it became a repertoire staple. 

The music soon achieved recognition beyond the opera house. It was Serge Diaghilev who decided, in 1909, to use the Polovtsian Dances of Act II as a stand-alone ballet score. Perhaps no other ballet contributed so much to Diaghilev's early fame. The appeal of the sweeping music, the wild mix of colors in Nicholas Roerich's costumes and sets and the groundbreaking choreography of Michel Fokine all added up to a thrilling combination for Parisian audiences and even created a wave of fashion for all things Oriental. The music later proved just as amenable to reuse in a Broadway musical (Kismet, 1953) and the ensuing film version (1955). 

But what of the opera? Rimsky-Korsakov's glossy versions of operas by his friends began to fall out of fashion. The fastidious scholar Pavel Lamm prepared his edition of a de-Rimskified Boris Godunov, and this version was given its premiere in Leningrad in 1928. The early Soviet musical world was divided: the rougher, edgier Mussorgsky was a welcome revelation to some, but for the heirs of Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov, the unraveling of the familiar version was an outrageous impudence. Lamm eventually went to work on Borodin, too, unearthing all of the original sketches for Prince Igor by 1947. But he was defeated this time by the far greater gulf between the composer's materials and any complete version.

We are forced to ask, then, whether there is, in fact, any such thing as an authentic Borodin version of Prince Igor? The question was only of interest to a handful of scholars until recently, when it began to confront opera audiences. First, Valery Gergiev boldly switched the standard order of acts in the Mariinsky production of the 1990s: the favorite Polovtsian act now came directly after the Prologue (in which Igor, undeterred by the eclipse, set out for battle). Gergiev argued that this format was closer to Borodin's original intentions, but the switch undermined any sense of drama or narrative coherence in the first part of the opera: Igor sets out to battle, then reappears already in captivity, with the audience left to guess at the course of the intervening battle. An orchestral entr'acte with some dramatic battle music would have helped. But Borodin did not supply any such music, and the Gergiev version only emphasized how reluctant the composer must have been to write any music depicting action; even the spectacular scene of Putivl in flames is kept to a minimum. 

More recently, Helikon Opera in Moscow mounted a concert performance of another "original" Prince Igor, although it never faced the test of proving its viability on the stage, because the closing of the theater for refurbishment forced the cancellation of the planned production. The musical content was assembled by a team under the leadership of the St. Petersburg scholar Anna Bulycheva, and a vocal score of this new Prince Igor was published in 2012. Bulycheva effectively picked up where Lamm had left off, but unlike Lamm, she insisted that an original Prince Igor does indeed exist. Bulycheva writes that the opera was on the brink of completion when Borodin died and accuses Rimsky-Korsakov of gratuitous and obsessive interference. For the Helikon performance, Bulycheva introduced some of Borodin's material that was not used by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov and produced a sequence of material that is remote from theirs. This is undoubtedly fascinating, but it is a long way from the promise of a single version that was all but ready, since Bulycheva still had to base her decisions largely on conjecture. And even after such great efforts, Bulycheva was unfortunately unable to settle the crucial matter of how the opera should end. 

The Bolshoi has also stoked the controversy with a production in 2013 by the venerable Yuri Lyubimov, still working at the age of ninety-five. Stripped of its reassuring decor and costumes, the opera began to take on a contemporary relevance. The source text, brought back into focus by Lyubimov, regained some of its darkness and bitterness — although this represents a return to the epic rather than to Borodin. But for all its freshness, the production dismayed audiences: for dramatic purpose, the cuts had to be ruthless, extending even to one of the opera's recognized highlights, Konchak's glorious aria. The opera's fundamental problem was only revealed again in a new form: how is Borodin's expansive and opulent music to be reconciled with the stark and gloomy epic? 

For now, we can only hope for a production of Igor that will somehow inject more dramatic sense into the music we know and love. The former authority of the Rimsky-Korsakov–Glazunov version has been eroded, but there is nothing as yet to take its place. Prince Igor is still a box of Legos without instructions and lacking some essential pieces. It seems obvious to us now that Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov did too much; but perhaps we must consider the possibility that in other ways, they did too little. spacer 

MARINA FROLOVA-WALKER is the author of Russian Music and Nationalism from Glinka to Stalin (Yale, 2007). 

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