Prince Igor: Overview
Prince Igor is Alexander Borodin’s only opera, comprising of four acts accompanied by a prologue. “The Lay of Igor's Host”, a medieval epic poem dating back to the 12th century, was the libretto which Borodin adapted for his piece. It describes Prince Igor Svyatoslavich of Russia’s military struggles against the invading Cuman tribes in the year 1185. Two Kievan chronicles were also utilized toward this composition, but despite all these, Borodin’s passing in 1887 left behind an unfinished work Prince Igor. This was subsequently picked up, edited and finished by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov. Its first performance was staged in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the year 1890.
More about Prince Igor: Borodin’s Magnum Opus Imperfectus
Alexander Borodin led a dual life of a chemist and a composer, which hampered his musical progress, and as a result, he couldn’t complete many musical works, including Prince Igor. He worked on his opera for about 18 years, alternating between the lyrics and the musical score, with an intention to compose a one-of-a-kind piece. This was based on a legendary ballad about a Russian hero’s courageous battle with invading central Asian hordes.
The Polovtsian Dances in the opera form the most famous part of it, and these accompany the banquet arranged by the Khan of the Polovtsy. Incredibly brilliant with an irresistible barbaric tone, which is intended to please the audience in the best way, it is even more overwhelming when performed alongside the original choral parts. These dances became even more popular when one of the tunes were used for "Stranger in Paradise" in the Broadway musical Kismet in 1953. Prince Igor derives influences from the French grand opera style, particularly while depicting Polovtsy, which matched the composer Mussorgsky’s signature harmonic style.
The operatic prologue begins in the Poultivle market area where Prince Igor of Seversk resides. A solar eclipse, considered a bad omen, is in effect, whereby, he is requested by everyone to forego his departure. Igor ignores this, and along with Vladimir Igorevich, his son, he leaves in pursuit of the Central Asian invaders, who have been pushed to the plains by Prince Sviatoslav of Kiev. Prince Igor’s brother, Prince Galitzky, is left to govern Poultivle and to oversee Princess Yaroslavna.
We now break down the opera into its individual acts.
Act I - Scene I
In this, we are exposed to the fact that Prince Galitzky is a traitor, who wishes to usurp the throne by winning over the subjects. He plans to accomplish this with Eroshka and Skoula’s assistance, who have deserted Igor’s army.
Act I - Scene II
Here, we are introduced to Princess Yaroslavna listening to young girls complaining that their friend has been kidnapped. They expect the princess to protect them against Prince Galitzky, and following this Yaroslavna confronts her brother, ordering him away. News of Igor’s defeat and imprisonment is also brought in, with the enemy moving toward Poultivle.
The act opens with the Polovtsian camp where Igor’s son, Vladimir, has fallen for Khan Konchak’s daughter Konchakovna. She is quite sure of her father’s consent, although Vladimir is doubtful about his father. Igor is offered the freedom on the promise of peace by Konchak, which the former refuses.
Igor escapes Khan Konchak’s camp on learning of an impending attack on his city, but Vladimir decides to stay back with Konchakovna. The Khan keeps Vladimir as a hostage, blesses his marriage to his daughter, but doesn’t pursue Igor.
The final act shows that the grieving Yaroslavna is happy upon her husband’s return, and they are seen entering the Kremlin together.
Recent performances of Prince Igor include a 2011 Moscow concert by the Helikon Opera, which was based on Pavel Lamm's version, while in 2014, a reconceived version was performed by New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, which was sung in Russian. Here, the majority of the tunes, which were written by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov, were left out by Gianandrea Noseda and Dmitri Tcherniakov, conductor, and director, respectively. However, Borodin’s orchestrations were retained.
In February 2014, at the Winter Olympics in Russia, Borodin's music was played under an eclipsed crescent sun, which moved across the upper center of the stadium, showcasing Russian History through Prince Igor’s story.
Prior to the above, 92 surviving manuscripts by Borodin were used to create a new edition, published in 2012, by Anna Bulycheva, a musicologist.
Prince Igor is a great part of Russian musical heritage, that, though originally unfinished, bore a huge potential for greatness. Borodin’s only operatic piece, despite his professorial duties, helped bring an obscure Russian epic poem into global prominence.
- About Prince Igor and Rimsky-Korsakov on All Music
- About the opera, Prince Igor on en.wikipedia.org
- About the opera, Prince Igor on Ballet and Opera
- About the opera, Prince Igor on Music with Ease
Piano sheet music of pieces from Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin at Galaxy Music Notes: