Why ‘Prince Igor’ is not an imperialist opera

Why ‘Prince Igor’ is not an imperialist opera

The other day, on the lively and lovely Parterre opera blog, I found myself arguing against three people that Borodin’s Prince Igor is not “imperialist, Orientalist” work warranting every bienpensant’s worry 24/7.  As I was working from memories of a long ago seen VHS tape, I argued in broader terms why works of art should not be read as political messaging. Now that I’ve finally seen Prince Igor again – it was the DVD of the Mariinsky production from the nineties with Valery Gergiev – I can go into specifics and list the

The Top 6 Reasons Why Prince Igor is Not Imperialist

1) Polovetsians have the best music. While the folk of the Rus principality declaim and exclaim, the Polovtsians lay down one hit after another: the maiden’s song, the choreography, the Konchakovna’s aria, plus the duet between Vladimir and Konchakovna (and this is just act ii) are not there to alienate the audience and make Polovetsianness exotic. If they are, it is not working.  (In this production Polovetsians are also much better dressed, whereas all Russian colours seem to derive from the pastel gray.)

2) There is the Romeo & Juliet type narrative with Vladimir and Konchakova. Igor’s son Vladimir is from the beginning one of the adopted Polovetsians, easily travelling between the two groups without seeing any contradiction in his loyalties. Rather than punishing them and turning either the Rus or the Polovetsian vision into the winning one, as much as one can say that there is a winning vision in the opera, it is the one belonging to the mestizo couple.

3) The title character is the most deluded of all, something of a King Lear of the Rus. To describe him as foolish wouldn’t be unfair. At first he doesn’t’ want to escape at Ovlur’s urging because that wouldn’t be entirely honourable and worthy of a Russian prince. In act iii, when it is too late and his principality in ruins, he changes his mind and escapes with Ovlur after all.

He is also the character who produces the haughtiest statements about ‘Russia’ (which does not yet exist as the nation state), its lands and its future.  So, I’ll leave it to you to add up what needs adding up.

The final tutti scene on the Rus side (which Gergiev chose as ending — the opera is in a constant state of editorial flux) is fitting, as it is the final display of delusion. You could sum it up as a bunch of deniers singing.

4) Rus and Russia are not shown in the light that will stir much unequivocal patriotic pride. While Igor is away, his own brother runs the place as the debauchery central. No nobless oblige, no virtue, no valiance. He ends up abducting a young woman from the non-noble strata of the principality, on behalf of which the chorus of women pleads to the Princess. “They’re worse than the Polovetsians,” Princess Yaroslavna is told when given a state of the union.

The only two undeniably comic characters are on the Rus, not the enemy’s side – the two deserting soldiers who turn the coat one more time after Prince Igor’s return and rejoin his army.

On the other side, Konchak’s army is not ridiculed. (Ovlur comes closest to a comic character) Konchak himself has a fantastic musical and dramatic platform to plead his worldview over and over. Konchak in act iii – if you want the audience to hate the enemy, you don’t give him these words and this kind of music. He is also somebody with an ethic and capable of clemency. After Igor escaped, the Khan let Vladimir know that he is not his enemy, but his son-in-law. He reiterates that he and Prince Igor should have been allies.

5) You can’t really say with any degree of confidence that “Polovetsians were people X with religion Y.”  They could be the Albigensians to the French, the Catalans or the Basques to the Spanish, the Habsburgs or the French or the Papal State to an Italian principality, the Ottomans to the East Europeans, but more than all that they belong to the fantasy genre. This Mariinsky production had them clad in vaguely Orientalist costumes with possibly Tatar overtones, with the former Soviet republics of the Central Asia feel to it. The production also had a silent Orthodox priest showing up with a cross and blessing the Rus folk on departures and arrivals. This is a choice. If a stage director wants this to be about inter-religious wars, the portrait of Christians won’t be very flattering.

6) Not a small thing: a woman sleeps with the enemy, after which not only does her side win, but she even doesn’t get killed off. Long live Borodina in the role of Konchakova, who is the one of the two love-birds with agency.

Bottom line: Prince Igor is not about Russia repudiating its Asian heritage, but embracing it.

Olga Borodina shows the magic of alto.

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4 thoughts on “Why ‘Prince Igor’ is not an imperialist opera

  1. Excellent analysis! I have to admit that I always find this kind of complaint slightly odd. Madama Butterfly is as politically problematic as it gets on a number of levels, as is a massive chunk of the rest of the standard rep, but that doesn’t stop the Met from mounting it every year. Why would Prince Igor be especially bad?

    Also, Prince Igor = exciting! I love the Russian rep. And PI really has some cracking tunes.

  2. Exactly, all of them will appear problematic if we want to look at it that way. Aida, Butterfly, Nabucco, Turandot, Turco in Italia, L’Italiana in Algeri, Tamerlano, Il Seraglio, Zauberflöte, Serse, Voyna i mir (remember the populist chorus scene sung by the Russian people? Somebody will get offended by *that*), Cosi Fan Tutte because of the two ‘Albanians’, Rosenkavalier because the servant Mohamad used to be cast in a child version of black-face a lot, Il Trovatore because it’s militaristic and anti-Gypsy (ahem), Carmen for the same reason, La Forza also has a Gypsy character and who asked the Roma about Preziosilla, and well, what can one say about Wagner.

  3. Plus it’s much more fun to play scholarly literary critic and come up with subversive readings than it is to play “find the sexism/racism/imperialism/classism” (and really, let’s be honest, you don’t ever have to look hard at all for those).

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