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Prince Igor

Close to the Russian soul

An interview with Philippe Jordan

By Marion Mirande 10 December 2019


© Agathe Poupeney / OnP

Close to the Russian soul

After the Tchaikovsky symphonies two years ago, Philippe Jordan is now conducting another great page from the history of Russian music with Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor. A man of musical folklorism and a close friend of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov who would orchestrate the opera following Borodin’s untimely death, the latter toiled for 18 years on a work drawn from a famous epic of Slavic literature itself inspired by the adventures of a historical figure from the 12th century.

Prince Igor is an epic work based on the famous Slavic chanson de geste The Tale of Igor’s Campaign. What musical resources underline the notion of grandeur?

Prince Igor is a profoundly Slavic work. The idea of territorial expansion and its defence is set to music by Borodin in a way that sparks powerful patriotic sentiments. Like Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, it is one of a few political operas that evoke the spirit of the Russian people. From the first notes of the prologue, you sense the essence of Russia through the bells, the sacred orthodox songs, and the choruses we hear prior to Igor’s departure. These musical resources are indicative of a form of patriotism we also find in Mussorgsky’s opera, particularly during the coronation scene. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is apt to complete the collection of works which, before becoming operas, were all poems that occupied a special place in Russian culture.

By celebrating the Russian spirit, Borodin also highlights the influences that have impacted it, particularly those from the East. What about that aspect?

In the land of the khan, Igor feels uprooted. He is no longer in Russia; he finds himself in a geographical context very different from his own. He discovers a different natural landscape but also another culture that, by essence, is more Eastern, more sensual. This orientalism and sensualism is not just echoed in the Polovtsian dances—where one may be surprised to detect the rhythm of a waltz which was generally absent in the East—but it can also be found in many of the songs, including the first aria of the mezzo, Kontchakovna and the chorus of women. The feminine dimension of the Polovtsian act is brought very much to the forefront. Whereas the preceding act had conjured up imagery of a Russia at war, we suddenly find ourselves in a sensual, dreamlike world which works to counterbalance the initial rigidity. We also encounter this realm in the Eastern dances of Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila.

To what degree does the orchestration add to this eastern flavour?

The Eastern tones in Borodin’s opera owe a great deal to Rimsky-Korsakov’s clear and sophisticated orchestration. His symphonic poem Scheherazade is also testimony to the importance of the East for the Russians. In his orchestration the percussion underlines the explosion of light created by the pearls and precious materials of the Polovtsian costumes. By its elegance and its rather conventional aspect—we are a long way from the bold innovations of Berlioz or Wagner—Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration is more in tune with Borodin’s music than, say, with that of Boris Godunov which he also orchestrated. He was not always able to translate Mussorgsky’s ferocity. Each was Russian in their own way.

Borodin said he wanted to compose lively colours and broad lines. Can you tell us a little about the power of the opera’s melodic lines?

The melodic aspect is crucial in Prince Igor. Borodin composed some beautifully rich melodies. One of the best examples is Igor’s aria in which hope is interwoven with sadness and nostalgia. It is repeated in Yaroslavna’s second aria and it is also present in the overture. The melodies are there to awaken powerful emotions such as Yaroslavna’s despair. But the rich melodies are not just limited to song. Thanks to Rimsky-Korsakov, you also find them in the orchestra.

Still unfinished at the time of Borodin’s death, Prince Igor was orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov and the missing sections were composed by Glazunov. Sometimes the structure of the work is changed. What has been done for this production?

Prince Igor is by nature an opera in four acts and a prologue. However, the third act is often cut, as is the case with this new production, for the simple reason that, with the exception of the trio between Igor, his son and Konchakovna, Borodin was not the composer. Borodin did not compose the overture either, however, he had played it on the piano to Glazunov on several occasions. There is every reason to believe that Glazunov—as composer of an overture that picked up many of the opera’s themes—was faithful to Borodin’s ideas. Even so, one can hear two motifs that are not repeated later. In our production, the prologue constitutes the overture and the latter is played between the second and fourth acts. It should also be noted that Igor’s second great monologue—orchestrated by Pavel Smelkov and not Rimsky-Korsakov—has been inserted into the fourth act. Though rarely played, it is interesting for its darkness—a darkness that evokes the first version of Boris Godunov.

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