February was a bad month for Vladimir Putin. Despite Russia’s impressive Olympic victories, the Sochi Games turned out to be a $51 billion showcase of graft and corruption that even the Kremlin’s deftest apologists could not explain away without sounding embarrassingly Soviet. Then, as the Potemkin-village closing ceremony bored the world, Putin’s obedient satrap in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, lost his two-month battle against an energized national opposition angered by his clumsy, Kremlin-induced decision to reject closer economic ties with the European Union.
Lenin statues across Ukraine bit the dust as the rebels turned Yanukovych into a fugitive from revolutionary justice whose private pleasure palace and zoo are now open to the public. On February 24, Putin maintained a stony silence as his country observed a holiday weekend for Defender of the Fatherland Day. Formerly Red Army Day, it commemorates the anniversary of Trotsky’s 1918 decree drafting soldiers to defend the incipient Soviet regime against internal enemies.
It was a pure but striking coincidence that both the gaudy Olympic display and the dramatic denouement in Ukraine should accompany an ambitious American foray into Russian culture. Just as the Olympics began, the Metropolitan Opera opened its production of Alexander Borodin’s only opera, Prince Igor. Absent from the Met’s repertory for nearly a century, it last appeared (in Italian translation) in 1917. I celebrated Defender of the Fatherland Day by attending a late-run performance.
Borodin was a surgeon and research chemist who composed music in his spare time. He worked on Prince Igor for eight years before he died suddenly in 1887, aged 53. He left the opera incomplete, but sympathetic colleagues—Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov—patched together what they could from various notes and fragments and used their intuition to complete the score and fill out the orchestration.
Steeped in Russian history and based on the first known Russian epic tale, Prince Igor takes us back to the Middle Ages, when Kiev was not a rebellious national capital on the periphery of a decaying empire, but the political and economic epicenter of what we now know as Russia. Kiev stood atop a loose confederation of principalities ruled by a dynasty that claimed descent from the Viking warriors who mastered the Eastern Slav lands around 860. Among these principalities was the minor realm of Putivl, located in what is today northeastern Ukraine, close to the Russian border. In the late 12th century, its ruler, Igor Svyatoslavovich, led a campaign against the Polovtsians, a nomadic Turkic tribe that dominated the arid steppe borderlands to the east and raided Slavic settlements and trade routes.
In the course of events, Igor is defeated and captured, only to find that the Polovtsian ruler, Khan Konchak, treats him as an honored guest and offers him his freedom if he will lay down his arms. Igor is too proud and tormented by guilt to accept, even though his son and the khan’s daughter have taken the opportunity to fall in love. At home, meanwhile, Igor’s roguish brother-in-law, Vladimir, Prince Galitsky, terrorizes Putivl and tries to seize power. He is felicitously killed as the Polovtsians attack and devastate the city. Having escaped captivity, Igor returns to his ravaged domain to popular acclaim, defiantly exhorting his people to crush Russia’s enemies.
When Borodin’s opera premiered posthumously in 1890, its strident celebration of Russian patriotism struck powerful chords, not only with nationalists but also with “Eurasianist” Russians who took pride in their country’s Asian heritage and viewed their culture as an appealingly exotic fusion of East and West. As the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince and a Russian peasant woman, Borodin himself strode that divide.
The Met’s production is by Dmitri Tcherniakov, who makes his company debut. Tcherniakov has a reputation as an enfant terrible—he set the claustrophobic first act of Tristan und Isolde in a modern submarine—and in Prince Igor he dismisses much of the cross-cultural content in favor of politicized psychodrama. Indeed, the entire act featuring Igor’s captivity and rosy reception by the Polovtsian khan is reduced to a fantasy, or hallucination. A giant video projection of the grievously wounded prince yields to an imagined field of flowers, where he and the other characters explore his subconscious longings and fears. The khan’s daughter, the smokingly seductive Anita Rachvelishvili, made the scene impressive—although the famous Polovtsian dances, choreographed to Borodin’s driving Oriental rhythms by Itzik Galili, look like jazzercise for stressed out baby boomers.
Greater emphasis falls on the psychodrama at home. Putivl emerges as a metaphor for all of Russia, elaborated by sets and costumes that suggest an early-20th-century society teetering on the brink of war and revolution. When the action returns to the beleaguered principality, we find Igor’s brother-in-law Vladimir running amok: He and his security services push around Igor’s wife Yaroslavna (Oksana Dyka, in her role debut) and her law-abiding subjects. Surprise! They must pay bribes to get things accomplished, and they can do nothing when they and their loved ones are abused and violated by the governing thugocracy. In the middle of a drunken debauch, this ne’er-do-well, performed with exquisite brutality by the talented bass Mikhail Petrenko, cries out that he will “restructure” the government and, naturally, seize the treasury: “What else is power for?” he snarls, in a rhetorical flourish that would astonish no one if the lines came from the pouting lips of another famous Vladimir.
Igor finally regains his realm, still haunted by his failures as a leader and man. In what could only have been a coincidence, his once-proud city hall now looks remarkably like Evromaidan after the pitched battle that routed Yanukovych. Defying logic, Igor’s downtrodden people emerge from the ruins to celebrate his return to the strains of triumphant music.
In this production, Tcherniakov and conductor Gianandrea Noseda decided to end with a plaintive and virtually unknown Borodin melody as a sort of coda to the final act. As it plays, Igor wrests himself away from the crowd’s adulation to lead them in the prosaic task of clearing rubble. Tcherniakov insists that Igor’s people are giving him a pass for having recognized his weaknesses and courageously moved on, but the greater temptation is to stare in disbelief as the shell-shocked populace praise and obey their leader no matter how disastrous he has been.
A stellar musical performance allowed these messages to resound in profound relief. One of the luxuries of the post-1991 world is that the Met can field an extraordinarily talented cast drawn almost entirely from former Soviet republics, led by the authoritative Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor.
Vladimir Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Yet without that very “catastrophe,” and the consequent end of the Soviet system’s oppressive travel restrictions, the American public might well have had to wait another 97 years to devour with such authenticity these searing psychological insights into Putin’s regime. The New York audience seems to be drawing the right conclusions, but Tcherniakov should probably be careful when he goes home.
Paul du Quenoy is associate professor of history at the American University of Beirut.