Sunday, 23 March 2014

Kiev, Kismet and Kulchur Klash

 Maidens,  music and 12,500 silk poppies                   Cory Weaver, Metropolitan Opera   
We're off to the cinema this afternoon, with champagne, smoked salmon sandwiches and 80% dark chocolate to sustain us for four and a quarter hours of Russian opera, direct from New York. The best thing to happen in the arts for years,  Live from the Met  is a brilliant way to enjoy opera and at £29  (for a view that would set you back $300 dollars or more in the house),  you can even risk trying something unknown.

Not that Borodin's music for his epic opera Prince Igor could be described as unfamiliar. Much of the score was immortalised in the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet, and the Polotsvian Dances were used at the opening ceremony of this year's Winter Olympics at Sochi. Nevertheless, it is ninety seven years since the opera itself was last performed at the Metropolitan Opera House and Borodin himself never saw it performed, as despite working away at it for 20 years, he had not finished it (like most of his music) when he died in 1887.

It was his friends Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Anatol Liadov and Alexander Glazunov who completed Prince Igor, Glazunov writing the overture entirely from the memory of hearing Borodin play it. Based on the only surviving manuscript of a mediaeval poem, the  libretto for the new Met production uses the 1960s  translation by the novellist Vladimir Nabukov (of Lolita fame). The story tells of a Russian Prince ruling the ancient Ukrainian city state of Putivl who sets out to fight the Polotsvians,  nomadic warriors from Mongolia (an interesting thought for an audience conscious of the rising tensions in Kiev and the Crimea).

Despite the advice of the boyars and an ominous eclipse of the sun,  Prince Igor sets out with his army, leaving the city in the charge of his wife Yaroslavna's brother Galitsky, who turns out to be a thoroughly nasty piece of work, having his way with any maiden who takes his fancy, plotting to send his sister to a nunnery and intent on taking over the throne.

After the battle                                           Victor Vasnetkov, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Meanwhile Prince Igor's army is overwhelmed and he and his son Vladimir taken prisoner and the invaders go on to overrun Putivl. The victorious  Khan treats his prisones with the respect and hospitality due to royal captives, but despite this (and the blandishments of the Polotsvian women) both manage to escape and return to find Putivl in ruins. The good news is that the traitorous Galitsky was killed by the invading Polotsvians but his wife Yaroslavna is alive. Filled with remorse for his failed campaign, Prince Igor asks his citizens for forgiveness and leads them in rebuilding the city.

Back to Borodin and the unfinished works. As well as a musician (he could play the piano, flute, violin and cello) he was a linguist (he could speak French, German and Italian as well as his native Russian) but far from being an anguished artist sitting up for night after night struggling to complete a score, he described himself as a 'Sunday musician', preferring to focus his time on his career as an outstanding organic chemist (some believing that he was first to link cholesterol to heart disease).

Not only a Renaissance man, combining the arts and sciences with equal skill, Borodin was a feminist.  Encouraged by his greatly loved wife Ekaterina, who was committed to women's rights, he believed in  equality of education. Convinced that women would make good doctors, he founded with Ivan Pavlov the St Petersburg Medical School for Women, running it for the last 12 years of his life.

He said, "As a composer seeking to remain anonymous, I am shy of confessing my musical activity... For others it is their chief business, the occupation and aim of life. For me it is a relaxation, a pastime which distracts me from my principal business, my professorship. I love my profession and my science. I love the Academy and my pupils, male and female, because to direct the work of young people, one must be close to them."

Despite this commitment, Borodin's monumental tomb at the Alexander Nevksy Cemetery in St Petersburg is a testament to his music. So it is comforting to know that on his burial casket there is a silver plate from his women students which reads: "To the Founder, Protector and Defender of the School of Medicine for Women."   Rather than his music, this was the project of which he was most proud.

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