Thursday, September 11, 2003

[9/11/2011] Sunday Classics: Prince Igor doesn't know that what's happening to him is History (continued)


BORODIN: Prince Igor: Prologue, Opening scene
A square in Putivl. The Prince's army is ready to start a campaign. People. Prince Igor and the other princes ceremonially walk out of the cathedral.

THE PEOPLE sing a chorus of praise to the sun and to their glorious princes -- and, while they're at it, most everyone else on the planet.

PRINCE IGOR: We go into battle against the enemies of the Rus.
THE PEOPLE: May God grant you victory over the enemies! Hoy!
PRINCE IGOR: We go against the Polovtsian khans.
THE PEOPLE: Wash away this outrage to Rus with enemy blood! Hoy!
BOYARS: Crush the enemy as you did at Oltava.
Crush them as you did at Varl.
Put them to flight as you did at Merl.
May the armies of the Polovtsian khans be annihilated!
PRINCE IGOR: We set out with faith in God to fight!
THE PEOPLE: God will help you!
The Lord God help you!
God will help you!
God will direct you in victory for Rus
and the enemy's destruction.
PRINCE IGOR: I want to break my spear
for the glory of Rus in distant Polovtsian steppes
and to die there in honor or conquer
the enemy and return with honor!
THE PEOPLE: God will grant you victory etc.
PRINCE IGOR: Princes, it is time for us to set off.
[It grows dark.]
PRINCE GALITSKY (Igor's brother-in-law):
What does this mean?
See, the sunlight grows dim.
THE PEOPLE: Oh, it is a sign from God, Prince!
VLADIMIR IGOREVICH (Igor's son): And like the moon, the sun
appears as a sickle in the sky!
THE PEOPLE: Oh, this sign bodes no good, Prince!
[It is now very dark.]
Stars are shining in broad daytime!
The earth is shrouded in awful darkness!
Night has fallen!
Oh, do not go on your campaign, Prince!
Oh, do not go! Oh, do not go!
[It gradually becomes lighter.]
PRINCE IGOR: This is a divine omen from our Lord,
whether for good or evil, we will see.
None may evade his destiny.
What have we to fear?
For a just cause we will fight:
for our faith, for our country, for Rus!
How can we turn back without fighting,
thus clearing the way for the enemy?
BOYARS: That is as may be, Prince, but nevertheless
it would be better not to go, better not to go.
PRINCE IGOR: Brothers, let us mount our proud steeds
and set off to see the blue sea.
[It is now quite light again.]
THE PEOPLE: Glory, glory, glory, glory!
Dushan Popovich (b), Prince Igor; Zharko Tzveych (bs), Prince Galitsky; Noni Zhunetz (t), Vladimir Igorevich; Belgrade National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Oscar Danon, cond. Decca, recorded 1955

As the curtain rises [9:49] the Putivl crowd does its part, and [13:55] Prince Igor does his part, sounding appropriately brave, humble, and resolute. Then, just as Igor tells his commanders it's time to set off, the whole scene is suddenly shrouded in darkness. It's a solar eclipse, of course, but you know how superstitious those old-time people could be with those inexplicable natural phenomena.

Note that as the sun returns, and Igor puts a brave face on it, but I think everyone knows that something is wrong -- perhaps not just as a consequence of the eclipse, but in line with a feeling that something in the general culture has changed. And this might be a good time to note that while every English translation of the libretto I've seen routinely translates the invariable Russian "Rus" as "Russia" and "Russian," I'm sorry, it isn't, and this manages to miss a crucial point. This isn't Russia or Russians we're dealing with, but their nearest ancestors, the Rus of the principalities surrounding Kiev.

Last night, you may recall, in our Wikipedia reading on the Kipchaks, the most common version of what the people known in Russian and Ukrainian as Polovtsi called themselves, who "originated in the Kimek Khanate" and "conquered large parts of the Eurasian steppe during the Turkic expansion of the 11th to 12th centuries together with the Cumans," we read that among the Europeans they grappled with were the Kievan Rus, that they were defeated by Knyaz [Prince] Vladimir Monomakh of the Rus in the 12th century," and that "they sacked Kiev in 1203."

Our opera takes place in 1185, and what neither Igor nor the people of Putivl know is that their world has changed, and the clock is ticking for the Rus. Let's listen again to the Overture and the opening scene of the Prologue, from the best-conducted performance of the opera I've heard.

Prince Igor:

Prologue, Opening scene
Boris Martinovich (b), Prince Igor; Nikola Ghiuselev (bs), Prince Galitsky; Kaludi Kaludov (t), Vladimir Igorevich; Sofia National Opera Chorus, Sofia Festival Orchestra, Emil Tchakarov, cond. Sony, recorded July 14-20, 1987


Instead of fighting heroically and conquering, as Igor no doubt expected, he and his men were promptly routed by the ferocious Polovtsian khan, Gzak, whom we see briefly in the opera but never hear. Gzak is very much the scourging terror imagined by the Rus. But there are two khans leading this westward expedition, and other one, in whose captivity Igor falls, is nothing like the Rus imaginings. Khan Konchak is scarily forceful, yes, but he's also wise, gracious, respectful, and even -- horror! -- quite charming.

I think this would be a good time to hear Konchak, in nocturnal colloquy with Igor. His aria is understandably much beloved of Russian basses. (AFTERTHOUGHT: Probably I should have said something like "basses active in the Russian repertory." Except for Vladimir Ognovienko, one of our Galitskys, we're not hearing any actual Russian basses today. We've got a Yugoslav and a bunch of Bulgarians.)

Prince Igor: Act II, Konchak's aria
KHAN KONCHAK: Are you in good health, Prince?
Why are you in low spirits, my guest?
What is on your mind? Have the nets been torn?
Or aren't the hawks fierce enough to catch a bird in flight?
Take mine!
PRINCE IGOR: The net is whole,
and the hawks trustworthy,
but the falcon will not live in captivity.
KHAN KONCHAK: Have you always regarded yourself as a captive?
For you haven't been living as a captive, but as a guest of mine.
You were wounded in the battle of Kayala
and captured along with your army.
You were given to me as a hostage,
but you are my guest instead.
You are respected as a khan;
all I have is at your service;
Your son is with you, and so is your army.
You live as a khan here; you live as I do.
Admit it, do captives live like this? Like this?
Oh no, no, my friend, no, Prince --
you are not my captive, you are my dear guest!
Listen, m friend, believe me. I admire you, Prince,
for your bravery and fearlessness in battle.
I respect you, Prince.
You have always been dear to me; be assured of that.
No, I am not your enemy here. I am your host.
You are my dear guest.
So tell me what you dislike, tell me.
If you want to, take any horse of mine, take any tent.
Take my cherished sword, the sword of my forefathers!
I have shed much enemy blood with this sword.
Many a time in bloody battles
my sword has evoked mortal terror.
Yes, Prince, all here, all here are subordinate to the khan:
I have long been a terror to all. I am daring. I am brave.
I know no fear. All fear me. All here tremble.
But you were not afraid of me;
you did not beg for mercy, Prince.
Oh, not your enemy,
I would like to be your faithful ally,
Your trustworthy friend, your brother, believe me!
Do you want a captive from the distant sea,
a slave woman from beyond the Caspian Sea?
If you want one, just say the word.
I will give you one! I own countless beauties:
Their hair falls on their shoulders like snakes,
their misty black eyes,
looking tenderly and passionately
from under their dark brows.
Why are you silent?
If you want to, choose any one of them!
[Igor's reply omitted; jumps then to the aria] Boris Christoff (bs), Khan Konchak; SWF (Southwest German Radio) Symphony Orchestra (Baden-Baden), Ernest Bour, cond. Melodram, recorded live, 1951
Nicolai Ghiaurov (bs), Khan Konchak; London Symphony Orchestra, Edward Downes, cond. Decca, recorded 1965

But Konchak isn't the opera's only bass. Borodin has clearly set up a deliberate contrast between him and the bass we've heard earlier, Prince Vladimir Galitsky, Igor's brother-in-law, the brother of his young second wife, Yaroslavna. "Appalling" doesn't begin to describe Galitsky, who has, de facto, been left in charge of the principality in Igor's absence. (You'll notice that he's not along on the military campaign. Hmm.) Fortunately, Galitsky describes himself pretty well in his aria, sung in the scene following the departure of Igor and his war party.

Prince Igor: Act I, Galitsky's aria
THE PRINCE'S COURTIERS: Have you enjoyed yourself, Prince?
GALITSKY: I make no secret of it,
I hate boredom, and not a single day
would I live like Prince Igor.
I love to soothe my heart
with princely entertainment.
I love a merry life.
Oh, if I only were the prince of Putivl,
I would never grieve,
I would know how to live!
All day long I would govern
and solve any problem
while feating and drinking.
To all I would dispense justice,
while pouring them a drink!
Sing, sing, sing, sing, sing, carouse!

At night I would call upon the fairest maidens.
They would play and sing praises to me, their prince.
The prettiest blondes would stay with me.
All night I would love them, hey!
If only I had this chance,
I would freely drink, play and dance.
You would never see me bored.
I would know exactly what to do first:
organize the principality
and monopolize the state's treasury.
I would live as I please.
What else is power for? Hey!
If I were to become the prince,
all would get what they are due,
me as well as you.
And they would never forget us!
Hey, hey, hey, carouse!
Nicolai Ghiaurov (bs), Prince Galitsky; London Symphony Orchestra, Edward Downes, cond. Decca, recorded 1965
Vladimir Ognovienko (bs), Prince Galitsky; Kirov Theater Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, cond. Philips, recorded October 1993

It seems unlikely that Igor is unaware of his brother-in-law's character, though he may or may not sense a connection between it and the looming eclipse of the Kievan Rus culture. To return now to Igor's monologue, it should be noted that it actually precedes the scene with Konchak in Act II which we've already heard, but if anything this further illumination of his captor's character likely confuses Igor even more. Let's listen to the monologue again, and hear our prince struggling with demons that he really has no way of knowing are the March of History. It's for me such a powerful piece that I've yielded to the temptation to throw in a recording from an unexpected source.

Prince Igor: Act II, Igor's aria
No sleep, no rest for my tormented soul!
The night brings me no comfort or oblivion.
I relive the past alone, in the quiet of the night,
and the threat of the divine omen
and the celebrations for our military achievements,
my victory over the enemy,
and the pitiful end to military glory,
the defeat and the sounds and my capture,
and the death of all my soldiers,
killed in honest battle for their homeland.
All has been lost: my honor and my glory.
I have disgraced my native land!
Captivity, infamous captivity . . .
such is my destiny from now on,
and the thought that I alone am to blame!
Oh, give me, give me freedom . . .
I will succeed in atoning for my disgrace,
I will save my honor and my glory,
I will save the Rus from the enemy!
You alone, my dear love, you alone will not blame me.
with your tender heart
you will understand everything!
You will forgive me everything!
From your high tower you have worn your eyes out watching,
you await your beloved day and night,
and you shed bitter tears.
How could I spend day after day in fruitless captivity,
aware that the enemy is preying on the Rus?
The enemy is like a terrible beast
The Rus moan in the grip of its mighty claws
and lay the blame for this on me!
Oh give, give me freedom,
I will succeed in atoning for my disgrace.
I will save the Rus from the enemy!
No sleep, no rest for my tormented soul!
The night brings me no hope of escape.
I relive yet again the past alone in the quiet of the night . . .
And there is no way out for me!
Oh, I am so miserable, so miserable!
It is so hard to see my impotence!
Mikhail Kit (b), Prince Igor; Kirov Theater Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, cond. Philips, recorded October 1993
[in French] Michel Dens (b), Prince Igor; Paris Opera Orchestra, Pierre Dervaux, cond. Pathé, recorded in the early 1950s (?)


A new, hungry force is rising. In time, and in the power vacuum that follows the fall from glory of the Kievan Rus, this Muscovite principality will become a force to be reckoned with. The Rurik dynasty of Grand Princes of Russia will be established in 1283, and the first Ivan (1288-1340) will accede to the title in 1303. In time will come Ivan IV (1530-1584), known to history as Ivan Grozny, Ivan the Terrible, who will become Grand Prince of Moscow in 1533 on his way to being crowned the first Tsar of All the Russias.


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