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Good Night, Sweet Prince

The Met metes out a rebuke to Vladimir Putin.

Mar 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 25 • By PAUL DU QUENOY
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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.

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