Prince Igor, Opera by A. Borodin

Prince Igor was Alexander Borodin’s only opera; given the history of its composition, we are fortunate to have it at all. Possibly he was daunted by the scale of the task; maybe it was because he saw himself first and foremost as a scientist, treating musical composition almost as a hobby; but remarkably, despite working on Prince Igor for some eighteen years, Borodin never completed it and it fell to a number of his fellow Russian composers, most notably Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov, to bring Prince Igor to the stage.

Notwithstanding its epic proportions, Prince Igor is a straightforward tale of heroism and treachery. Igor, ruler of the Russian city-state of Putivl has gone into battle with the Khan of the Polovtsy, a nomadic tribe from Central Asia. He is captured, but the real threat to him comes from his brother-in-law Galitsky who, taking advantage of Igor’s absence, is plotting to overthrow him and install himself as ruler of Putivl. Prince Igor escapes but, following Galitsky’s scheming, will he find Putivl as he left it?

Sometimes an extract of music transcends the work it comes from. For many years, the much-celebrated Polovtsian Dances enjoyed a life of their own outside the opera: they featured in many performances given by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes which took Paris by storm in the first decades of the twentieth century; they provided one of the songs for the hit Broadway musical Kismet; and were even included in the opening ceremony for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

But the opera is ultimately much more than the famous dances it brought us: what is remarkable about Prince Igor is how Borodin so brilliantly brings together two very different musical conceptions: one to express the characters of the Russians, using melodies derived from his native folk songs while creating another, more exotic, style to depict the Polovtsians, full of the chromaticism associated by European audiences with Asian music.

Premiered in 1890 on 23 October (in the Julian calendar used in Russia at the time; 4 November in the more widely adopted Gregorian calendar) at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, those fortunate enough to come to the Volksoper Vienna have the opportunity to enjoy Borodin’s great opera all over again.

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