Opera is one of the most remarkable art forms that have been created in cultural history. Opera combines all the elements of the arts (music, theater, visual and performing arts) into one memorable production. Ever since Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, the Russian School of musical composition would make an impact on the world of opera. During my time in St. Petersburg, I knew I would attend several opera productions. Many Russian operas are not produced in the West and I wanted to experience many of the operas that I have come to love during my studies of Russian musical history. The first opera that I was able to see was Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor at the historic Mariinsky Theater.
Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) was not only a composer, but he also focused a lot of his time in the field of chemistry. Borodin was apart of the Russian musical circle known as “The Mighty Handful”, which also included the composers Mily Balakirev, Modest Musorgsky, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. These composers wanted to create musical works based on Russian musical traditions of the people and the Russian Orthodox Church. They were opposed of Western style of musical composition, which they felt was too mechanical and outdated. Borodin would eventually use Western elements of musical composition in his symphonies and string quartets. Besides being a composer, he was also an amateur cellist.
Prince Igor was based on the Old Russian epic The Tale of Igor’s Host and Borodin adapted the libretto himself. The opera was unfinished at the time of his death in 1887 and was finished by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov. The premiere of the opera took place at the Mariinsky Theater in 1890. The basic plot of the opera is that Prince Igor Sviatoslavich goes off to defend Rus (ancient Russia) from a Polovtsian tribe. Khan Konchak, the Polovtsian leader, captures Prince Igor but he eventually escapes. While Prince Igor is away at war, his wife’s brother, Vladimir Yaroslavich, claims he is now the new prince. However, Prince Igor returns to gather a new army to continue his fight against the Polovtsian leader. The opera is very patriotic, highlighting the determination of a Russian leader to ward of his enemies to protect his homeland. This is one of the reasons for its popularity in Russia. Music from this opera was also used in the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Seeing Prince Igor would be my first time attending a performance at the Mariinsky Theater. Not many people get the chance to see an opera at the theater where its premiere took place. The current building was opened in 1860 and named after Empress Maria Alexandrovna, the wife of Tsar Alexander II. From 1935 to 1992, the theater was renamed The Kirov State Academic Theater to commemorate the assassinated Leningrad Communist Party Leader, Sergei Kirov. The theater was given its original name after the fall of the Soviet Union. Before the opera began, I was able to visit an art exhibit that was located within the theater. The theme of the exhibit was to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Russian victory of World War II. The art featured scenes that captured the emotional toil the war had on the country, but also how music and other entertainments were used to increase moral of the Soviet soldiers and the people. I was also able to view pictures of the theater during the Blockade of Leningrad, which lasted from 1941-1944.
The production of Prince Igor was amazing, but I did notice some changes to the opera. The original opera is in four acts with a prologue. The production I saw was in two acts with a prologue. Even with this change, the opera running time was three hours and forty-five minutes, with one intermission. They also used the overture, as music for the set change between the prologue and Act I. Usually the overture is the first music one hears at the beginning of an opera. However, this did not ruin the storyline or the flow of the opera. What I have always loved about Prince Igor are the beautiful set designs and the costumes of ancient Russian. Everything was very colorful and the lighting added to the emotions of the music and dancing. After seeing this production, I cannot wait to experience more operas based on Russian themes here in St. Petersburg.
Prince Igor/ Князь Игорь
Mariinsky Opera, Chorus, and Ballet
Pavel Smelkov (conductor)
About the Contributor:
Jesika Berry holds a bachelors of arts in music performance (flute) from Spelman College in Atlanta Georgia. She has formerly been a principle flautist for AUC Symphony Orchestra (Atlanta) and a cellist for the Huxford Symphony Orchestra (Tuscaloosa). After completing SRAS’s Home and Abroad Scholarship program, she hopes to go on to graduate studies in Russian musicology.