For its entry into the Paris Opera’s repertoire, Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor has been entrusted to Barrie Kosky the Australian director who also heads the Berlin Komische Oper. A key figure in contemporary theatre, he discusses the dramatic and scenic challenges that go hand in hand with staging such a work.
Prince Igor is a work that conveys some profound images born of Russian folklore. How did you tackle that aspect?
It’s a real challenge staging a Russian opera outside of Russia. Prince Igor like Boris Godunov and The Queen of Spades are works that are intimately linked to their national culture. Nevertheless, we need to remember that they are all artists’ interpretations of Russian history. They are indicative of the way those artists liked to imagine them on stage and as such have little documentary value. When working on this particular opera, the first thing we need to take into account is that French audiences are unfamiliar with the story of Igor, the historical character. Similarly, all the other characters have no particular significance for them either. Thus it was important to present a contemporary story to which audiences could relate. This transposition meant that they needed to understand the opera without knowing Russian history and without having to reference the synopsis. The epic of Prince Igor and the Russian people needs to be universal so that audiences in Paris can connect with the themes raised in the libretto. The music is quintessentially Russian and obviously the text is in Russian, yet the images presented are contemporary and refer to different environments which in our globalised world are familiar to anyone.
Once the epic, folkloric dimension has been set aside, how do you make theatre with an opera in which the action is, to say the least, limited?
How do you stage an unfinished opera which, dramaturgically is built on shaky ground and whose libretto is not particularly brilliant? I admit that I have a perverse attraction for those types of challenges which generally prove to be extremely interesting, especially when the music conveys such intense emotions. Which is the case here. One of the major challenges was how to handle the destruction of the city. We know there’s a war going on and that people are dying but we never see it. Generally, with operas like Carmen, Don Giovanni, and Boris Godunov, the dramatic impetus is dictated by the characters. Yet here, you can’t expect anything from them. They come and they go without really filling the stage. As a result, Igor is hardly ever on stage. The character with the greatest presence is the Chorus—in other words, the People. We see them march off to war, engage in bacchanalian orgies and go to church; we see them lost, taken prisoner, and in mourning. They are far more three-dimensional than the principal characters. As such, the People become the dramatic catalyst of the opera. And by analysing their behaviour, we came to the following conclusion: today as always, it seems that the great collective tragedy is the need to bestow power on a single leader.
Prince Igor is also a work about losing connection with one’s roots and the feelings generally associated with that, such as nostalgia, the yearning for an absent loved one, but also, that quintessentially Homeric difficulty of returning home.
I have always been interested by the notion of exile and the fact of being uprooted from one’s culture. It’s an idea that guides my work; perhaps because of my Jewishness. Perhaps also because my grandparents left Europe for Australia and I left Australia for Berlin. The biblical image of exile inherent in the Old Testament is no longer a metaphor that works just for the Jewish people. We live in an era in which there have never been as many exiles and refugees as there are today in the entire history of humanity. But exile is also an integral part of the human condition. It has been inherent to humanity since the beginning of time as evidenced by the nomadic tribes of Africa. Cultures are born out of the displacement of people and their encounters with other cultures. That is also true for invasions and wars. Yet in addition to that notion, there is another more important one in Prince Igor and that is the solitude of people who are lost and without a home. How can they survive? The position is similar to that of the Hebrews in the desert as they searched for a leader. Moses, Jesus, Igor, Putin, Trump… Behind these individuals there is the basic premise and the eternal problem that only a man—and not a woman—can save us. But why do we embrace this ridiculous notion? It could be deduced that Igor is depicted as a hero. Yet the opera reveals to us a character who actually did nothing right. He loses his army, he loses the war, he is taken prisoner, and he loses his city. Everything leads towards the notion of defeat—personal and collective.
But isn’t that notion of failure the underlying theme in the second monologue which is delivered in the final tableau of the production?
Yes, absolutely. The second monologue deals with the shame associated with failure and the guilt of a leader who feels compelled to flog himself for having acted as he did. In this case, we are confronted with a man who has lost his way and who cannot face his people. It is no longer possible for him to look them in the eyes. This monologue, which becomes the core of the final tableau, stirs some particularly strong feelings. An ashamed man has always seemed more interesting to me than a man claiming victory.
The second monologue brings out the bleak and tortured aspect of the character. But there is also a first monologue from Igor which, in particular, is haunted by his wife. The idea of heartbreak and separation is no doubt linked to his exile, but it also evokes the problems he encounters when he is reunited with Yaroslavna.
The first monologue is filled with his dreams and visions. He imagines returning to his homeland and being reunited with his wife. But in the end, the trauma is such that their reunion cannot lead to a happy ending. Yaroslavna’s character differs from other historical operas in which the women are essentially demoted to secondary roles. In this work, the wife sings more than her husband. She delivers the most melancholic pages and constitutes the emotional heart of the opera: her loyalty to her husband, her determination to endure hardship and cling to life so she can see Igor again gives the audience something to connect to.
From a formal point of view, the monologue evokes isolation. Does the Prince’s inner persona represent a powerful dramatic theme for you?
Indeed, while Russian operas inure us to long scenes in which the tsars interact with choruses, Igor is essentially with his wife, the khan or he’s alone. These then are private scenes. The solitude of that man and his questions weigh heavily. Right until the end of the work, for Igor it’s all about projection. What will he be able to do once he returns home? His future remains hanging in the balance.