Prince Igor is rightly considered to be one of the main Russian operas. This large-scale, multi-level fresco combines ‘high-style’ epic narrative and folk comedy, juxtaposes the chant of the Russian heroic poem and the boisterously ‘frenetic’ musical world of the East. Borodin himself explains his aesthetic position as follows: “It seems to me that in opera, as in sets, there is no place for small forms, trivial detail: everything should be written in bold strokes, clearly, vividly and, in so far as possible, convenient to perform by both voice and orchestra”.

Borodin spent many years writing Prince Igor, he would set it aside for long periods of time, and then again return to it. He never managed to finish it. Following his sudden death, the opera was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov.

The première which took place at the Mariinsky Theatre on 23 October 1890 was a huge success. Its first Bolshoi Theatre performance was on 19 January 1898. In 1899, it was produced for the first time abroad — in Prague, and then — in Paris, New York, Milan. Igor took the world’s leading opera houses by storm.

Prince Igor
was to become one of the Bolshoi Theatre’s ‘designer label’ titles, for many years it formed the basis of the Russian section of the Theatre’s operatic repertoire. It was given seven productions and never disappeared for long from the billboards. There have been over one thousand performances of Prince Igor at the Bolshoi.

Today Prince Igor returns to the Bolshoi after a record-breaking absence of eleven years. Yuri Lyubimov, the maître of Russian theatre directors, presents us with his view of the opera. Lyubimov, the legendary founder of the Taganka Theatre is famous throughout the world as an opera producer, though this side of his work has, until now, been overlooked in Russia. He has over twenty opera productions at leading opera houses to his name: he has worked for La Scala, Paris National Opéra, The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Bavarian Staatsoper, Naples’ Teatro San Carlo, Chicago’s Lyric Opera, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Festival.

Yuri Lyubimov and Vassily Sinaisky.

Yuri Lyubimov:
"Prince Igor gives one an opportunity of discussing the situation which has overtaken our civilization. I would like the gods to occasionally look downwards and see what is taking place on earth. And this is exactly what happens in Prince Igor. I am against concentrating all attention on war. The Russian princes fought so much between themselves, it is a miracle there were any Russian lands left at all! And so instead of fighting, we are going to rely on reason.

The production’s scenography is symbolistic and fairly laconic, though the details you see are historically authentic and have been very carefully chosen. There is no everyday life as such in the production — there are images, situations and actions. And lighting will play an important role in conveying the mood of a particular scene or other.

The Polovetsian dances scenes, so popular with the public, I want to emphasize the profound cunning underlying the cordiality of the ‘hosts’ which, in many productions, is reduced to naught. I intend to work with each performer on the plastic pattern of their role, to create for each one of them — whether soloist, chorus artist or mime ensemble member — a ‘score’ for their body movements, model their poses, plot their reactions, so that everything is done in a musical way.

Zinovy Margolin’s scale model.

The scenographer of the production is the well-known theatre designer Zinovy Margolin, the recipient of a great many theatre prizes (including several Golden Mask awards), who has collaborated successfully in the past with the Bolshoi Theatre.

On the podium is Bolshoi Theatre Music Director and Chief Conductor Vassily Sinaisky.

The cast includes leading exponents of the Bolshoi classical school of singing, as well as Young Opera Program soloists and guest artists.

To this day the opera’s score remains a subject of research for music scholars. In 1947 Pavel Lamm reconstructed the entire authorial text of the opera, but a canonic ‘authentic’ version of Prince Igor does not exist, and for each production theatres are in the habit of presenting their own versions, now including the previously deleted authorial scenes edited by Rimsky-Korsakov, now doing away with the editorial additions, now presenting a different sequence of scenes and numbers.

Pavel Karmanov, creator of the new music version:
It was via Vladimir Martynov that I became involved in this work. Martynov worked a lot with Yuri Lyubimov at the Taganka Theatre, they are old colleagues. He understands what the latter wants right off. Therefore to my first meeting with Yuri Petrovich I was accompanied by Martynov, he introduced me and we decided what our respective roles were going to be. I would do my own musical version, while Martynov would guide it in the right direction and help solve tricky issues.

All the ideas underlying this production belong to Yuri Lyubimov — I was no more than his musical ‘hands’. His main conception was that we should move away from Borodin’s libretto, towards
The Lay of Igor’s Host. In his view there are moments in this opera which get in the way of the main storyline. In particular too much attention is given to peripeteias of love and friendship which have nothing to do with The Lay. His aim was to keep closer to history and drama and, wishing to concentrate on historical events, he requested the appropriate cuts.

I complied with his requests, however, at the same time, I fought for Borodin

Lyubimov got what he was after: the opera has certainly become very dynamic. Those parts of the longuers (however divine they may have been) which irritated him are gone, there remains just a sparse outline. For instance we totally deleted (probably to the dismay of the performers of the role) Konchak’s aria in which he sings only of his friendly feelings for Igor, of his admiration for his qualities as a military leader and so on.

What most delights Mr. Lyubimov in this opera are
The Polovetsian dances. Here he made no changes, the dances have been revived in Goleizovsky’s choreography by Yuri Grigorovich, invited specially to join the production team for this purpose.

In terms of its theatrical language, the production is totally traditional: there are no modern innovations. There is no transposing of the action, Igor will not walk about in the suit of an advertising agency employee... Zinovy Margolin’s fine sets are fairly conventional and symbolic, because the main aim was to concentrate on the characters’ inner world. The production focuses above all on Igor who has just one dream: to get together another army and be victorious. Here the dramatic text is not weakened by a mass of minor storylines.

First and foremost, it was theatre that Lyubimov was after. And even at rehearsals he works to this end. At the present moment he is occupied with the singers and spends a great deal of time on facial expression, plotting movements on stage. The main thing I want to say is that no one wanted to ‘improve’ the opera. We just want to make it more ‘listenable to´ for contemporary audiences.

It is quite probable that cutting (sensitive cuts of course) will become the accepted practice today when the demand is for more condensed, dynamic forms.