Reality and illusion with film: Prince Igor at the Metropolitan Opera

After the army has been serenaded by the peasant choir singing from the audience balconies to the left and right side of the stage, the curtain falls on the traditional palace scene. Film footage of soliders is projected on a screen. Black and white. Very little movement, almost like a photo. They are waiting. The orchestra begins tranquilly, the nearly motionless film clips continue. The score intensifies, the soldiers become visibly nervous. Brass and percussions drown out the other instruments as explosions tear through the sky. The soliders duck, reel and crumble to the ground. One is bleeding from his head.

The black and white film yields to a meadow of bright red flowers. A woman sings a sirene song offstage in the background. The scene shunts back and forth from the bleeding solider on the battlefield to the endless poppies. Maybe the soldier has died. And we have entered his mind, his fantasy, some utopia of his dreams. If you read the program, he is in captivity and being lured to stay in the new world guest-prisoner. A woman appears, then from the flowers a man rises, a man who looks strikingly similar to the relatively contemporary one we have just seen on film and who is certainly Igor from scene 1. And when they move, the flowers move, and the flowers look as if they're on the stage, as if they are no projection at all, but rather stage props.

Alas, this spectacular game of illusion, the ambiguity between dream and reality, comes to an end at some point here in Act 1, Scene 2, and it does not return at any other point. The possibilities of film are also forgotten, and the performance as a whole fails to equal the exceptional complexity and depth of The Nose earlier this year.

Nonetheless, it is absolutely worth seeing if you are interested in operas or Gesamtkunstwerke. The opera begins with a moral projected onto the screen, something like: "The best way to avoid yourself is to start a war." This is followed by a traditional timeless set in scene one - the palace where Prince Igor is preparing for war. The rest of Act 1 takes place in the poppy field, which has beatiful music and arias for both women and men. It also takes up eternal subjects such as love, pride, patriotism, dispair in duets by Vladimir and his lover as well as Igor and the Sultan, before reaching its climax in the Polovtsian dances which even release Igor from his pain.

In Act II we return to the palace, where Igor's son-in-law is leading a riotous life and beginning to challenge the authority of Igor's wife. Similar to the effect of the film at the beginning of Act I, Scene II, the past and present are bridged here as well, but through the costumes of Golutsin's (the son-in-law) entourage - a mixture of undefined soldier's uniforms and businessmen's suits. This is particularly effective because Golutsin's promises are the eternal ones of a populist, "everyone will live well," or a tyrannt, "will dispense justice according to my will," i.e. representative of what occurs in the corridors of power today.

To close, in Act III, we find ourselves in the palace again, but it has been destroyed by the invading Polovstians. Unfortunately, this is where the production missed a great opportunity to reintegrate film. The act begins with the princess lamenting the distruction by the conquerers. When she departs, Vladimir, his lover and Igor appear in the palace, although they are escaping from the Polovtsians in Arabia by dialogue. This is extremely confusing and needs to be treated as a flashback like the dream scene in Act I, perhaps even with the poppy field, which would be a great contrast to the destroyed palace that Igor is nonetheless determined to return to and resurrect.

The last scene, especially a chorus repeated by the people, does have some magnificent musical highlights. But above all, amongst the shattered roof, cracked tubs, barrells, dripping water, the lame downtrodden frustrated angry Igor sets to work, believing in his ability to reign despite complete failure hitherto.

Angelika Friedrich

Further reading:

Götterdämmerung at the Metropolitan Opera: An ironic production?
The Nose at the Metropolitain Opera
The Golden Cockerel at the Mali
Khovanshchina at the Metropolitan Opera
Der Ring in Bayreuth: Transposition?
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