Alexander Borodin: Prince Igor/Knaz Igor (1890)

Opera in a prologue and four acts. Running Time: 3 hours 12 minutes.


For some reason I am on a Russia binge.

Alexander Borodin was the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince and a Russian woman whose birth was registered as fathered by one of his biological father’s serfs, hence the surname Borodin. He was a chemist by profession and in spite of this he was an oddly successful composer of one incomplete grand opera, two string quartets, three symphonies, and the tone poem In the Steppes of Central Asia. As I said, Prince Igor was not completed by Borodin and the overture and most of the third act were written by Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov.

SETTING: Putivl and a Polovtsian camp, 1185. Prince Igor decides to go to war in spite of a foreboding solar eclipse leaving his young wife Yaroslavna high and dry to deal with a Polovtsy invasion while he gets captured and entertained by Polovtsian maidens. He eventually manages to escape and returns to find his city in ruins, but liberated.


Prologue and Act 1:

0: The Overture *** is a rather magnificent potpourri of the main themes from the opera (they are all here, literally just listen to the overture and skip the rest!) starting with a sober cold opening followed by military, romantic (one rather haunting melody will return in act 3), patriotic tunes. It was not written by Borodin but rather by Alexander Glazunov.

PROLOGUE: The Cathedral Square of Putivl.

12, 18, 25, 30: The prologue itself is a twenty-minute long choral sequence interrupted by the soloists and (rather famously) an eclipse of the sun. It starts with a rather quiet orchestral introduction and a rather recognizable chorus **. There is a second, far more brief and rather brassy choral bit that occurs right after followed by an eclipse of the sun *: an evil omen according to all but Igor decides that his honour would be forfeit unless he leaves for war. Skula and Yeroshka decide that they will remain in the city and not fight so Igor’s brother-in-law Galitsky will give them cushy jobs. The entrance of Yaroslavna ** in which she warns her husband not to go turns into a trio with Igor’s son Vladimir (an adult son by his first marriage). Igor is given the blessing of the Church as the chorus repeats the opening chorus *.

ACT 1: The Polovtsian Camp, evening. (59 minutes)

0: A serene night opening * as Polovtsian maidens (led by a soloist) entertain their princess, the ironically named Konchakovna. It is half sedate and half exotic of an Arabian Nights sort of mood setting Orientalism.

6: The Dance of the Polovtsian Maidens *, a popular concert item.

9: Konchakovna’s monologue ** in which she tells us of her love for the captive Prince Vladimir. A rather good contralto number.

14: The Russian prisoners are brought on after a long day of forced manual labour to a chorus written by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov * and are grateful to Konchakovna for feeding them.

16: Vladimir’s aria *** as he waits for his lover (unnamed, but it is Konchakovna).

21: The Konchakovna-Vladimir duet ** has a very unique vocal distribution with the tenor oftentimes singing higher than the woman he loves. They wish to marry but know that although her father will certainly consent, his will not.

27: Igor’s aria *** (because why not?) starts off with a very strong orchestral introduction (first heard at the start of the overture). This number is where a lot of the overture originally came from, not all of it, but a lot of it and it is thus probably one of the opera’s most developed, perhaps too developed. Rather remarkable for a baritone aria. A Christian Polovtsian named Ovlur tells Igor to escape. He promises to think it over but for the most part thinks it is a bad idea.

39: The first part of the Igor-Konchak duet ** (the galloping tune from the overture dominates here).

41: Konchak’s aria *.

46: The second part of the Igor-Konchak duet flowers when a tune from the overture returns *, although otherwise the number consists basically of recitative. Konchak does not think of Igor as a prisoner but as a worthy guest and orders his slaves to entertain him with a series of choral-dances.

48: The last twelve minutes or so of the act consists of the very famous Polovtsian Dances *** which is well known as a concert item, at the end of which Konchak presents Igor with one of his dancers.

Acts 2, 3, & 4:

ACT 2: (48 minutes)

Scene 1: Galitsky’s court in Putivl. (16.5 minutes)

3, 7, 11: Meanwhile, Galitsky has been making a jolly mess out of his brother-in-law’s city-state but his followers praise him and gossip rather horrifyingly about a maiden who has been kidnapped and imprisoned in the palace and begs to be returned to her father without being dishonoured by the men (her fate is related in the following scene when Yaroslavna hears of the situation). Galitsky’s “Si j’étais roi” song about how he would feast and deflower maidens all night if he could *. Tuneful, but also rather grotesque. A chorus of women ** come begging Galitsky to release their friend (the kidnapped girl). Skula and Yeroshka provide some uneasy comic relief with their songs *, thus rounding out the scene.

Scene 2: A room in Yaroslavna’s chambers in the palace. (31.5 minutes)

18: After a sad but lovely introduction, Yaroslavna’s aria ***, as she fears that no news of Igor is bad news.

26: The chorus of women arrive pleading that Yaroslavna intercede to rescue their friend  who has been abducted by Galitsky’s men **.

31: The arrival of Galitsky and his repremand by Yaroslavna * is a study in contrasts, Galitsky is sneaky and ornery, Yaroslavna very dramatic and serious. One is certain that if he wasn’t her own brother she would have thrown him out months ago. He promises to release the girl, but warns that he will just take another (and makes some crude jokes about Yaroslavna taking a lover since her elderly husband is away, which isn’t true).

38, 41, 43, 46: Now something much more noble: Yaroslavna’s address to the Boyars *** who inform her (chromatically) that a Polovtsian Khan is attacking the city *.  Yaroslavna in despair ** as she learns that no message can be sent to the city’s allies as the roads have all been blocked, quickly turns to a sweet tune but then despair again *** as the threat of the Polovtsian becomes immediate and Yaroslavna orders an attack.

ACT 3: The Polovtsian Camp as in act 1. (24 minutes)

0: The Polovtsian March **, more of an entr’acte before it turns into a war chorus for the victorious warriors from the Steppes as they revel in their victory over Putivl.

5: Konchak is excited that victory over the entirety of Russia is almost assured with the sacking of Putivl *. The last two minutes are heralded by a brass voluntary which you will recognize from the overture (probably because Glazunov wrote this number).

10: Igor reflects on his nation’s defeat * in a long monologue in which he decides to convince himself that defending Russia is the responsibility of the other princes and not himself.

18, 22: As long as this scene was the last six minutes consist of three brief numbers: 1) A Recitative between Igor and Ovlur * in which the Polotsvian convinces Igor to escape. 2) A trio between Igor, Vladimir and Konchakovna (or rather it is supposed to: for some reason Vladimir is captured, Igor already having had escaped, and Konchakovna does not plead with Vladimir to either take her with him or stay to the lilting theme from the overture). Instead, she saves his life from the Polotsvians and Konchak consents to their immediate wedding amid popular rejoicing **.

ACT 4: (28.5 minutes)

0: Yaroslavna’s dawn lament ***.

6: The Putivl women (men in the background) mourn the destruction of their city **.

13: The return of Igor *, greeted with relief by Yaroslavna to yet another tune from the overture which quickly bogs down into a much more standard and less interesting European-style duet. It’s fine, but not really all that interesting.

17, 23, 26: Skula and Yeroshka provide some more sing-song comic relief * before they realize that Igor has returned and they panic (Yeroshka tries to hang himself with his harp). None of it is particularly interesting, at least not to me. They do, however, make the Prince’s return public knowledge, and thus bring on the opera’s only bit of total time wasting: No one believes them at first and they have to prove it to the Boyars leading to the two and a half minute long closing chorus which is a repeat of the one from the end of the Prologue **.


For an opera of relatively high musical achievement, Prince Igor suffers from prohibitive structural problems. The first two acts are interchangeable to an unparalleled degree and the third act is frequently dropped because Borodin didn’t write most of it. However, the third act is so climactic as to make the fourth act seem more like a relatively anti-climatic epilogue, its dramatic cohesion sustained mostly by Yaroslavna’s personality in the first half (a difficulty seeing as she has only been on stage for about forty of the last 164 minutes), and the homecoming in the second half. To say that the narrative is sprawling is a gross understatement of the situation indeed, although there is very little action given the opera’s massive length, most of the time the characters either stand around doing nothing or, at best, they express some sort of emotion: joy, despair, love, triumph, doom. Skula and Yeroshka really are not great comic relief (nor even good comic relief), and the Prince Galitsky subplot are both underdeveloped, disturbing (the subplot concerns the rape of a female character we never technically see), and rather pointless, as they do very little for the opera overall other than lengthen it and provide some off-colour moments. The Vladimir-Konchakovna romance is a little bit more realistic (and much more musically interesting) but also strangely disturbing, although I can’t point out exactly why it is. The music is oddly amazing for an amateur composer who was a chemist by day, granted he composed it over a 22-year period and died three years before the thing was prepared for public performance. However, in spite of its dramatic flaws (which are massive) the music mostly salvages the work, so ultimately an A-.

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