Grant Park Symphony Orchestra

at the Petrillo Music Shell

June 22 and 24

Aleksandr Borodin is wonderful proof that one can be an extraordinarily talented composer and yet devote one’s professional life to something else completely. Borodin’s vocation as a physician and chemist as well as a composer and member of the nationalistic “Russian Five”–Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Cui were the others–left him with never enough time to devote to composition. He was frequently pestered by the other members of the group of composers and their mentor, critic Vladimir Stassov, to devote more time to his music. But there were always distractions.

It was Stassov who gave Borodin the idea for his opera Prince Igor, which is based on the 12th-century Russian epic poem The Song of Igor. Rimsky-Korsakov so admired Borodin’s talent that he made urging him to work on his opera a personal crusade. He even tried to force Borodin to keep to a deadline by scheduling a concert performance of the famous Polovtsian Dances, but ended up orchestrating the scene himself from Borodin’s piano-vocal score.

Some 20 years after beginning work on the opera, Borodin, in a burst of enthusiasm, decided to finish it. But he died suddenly before he could. The opera’s various scenes were found all over his house, done in pencil, and it fell to Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov to pull them together into a cohesive Opera, based as much on what Borodin had played for them and told them about how he had conceived the work as on his finished music. Glazunov later admitted that he had actually composed the famous overture, from Borodin’s themes, as well as all of act three, which is usually omitted in performances. Most of the orchestrations are Rimsky-Korsakov’s.

The temptation is to think that any work with such a jumbled genesis must have little artistic value, but amazingly enough the vision of Borodin triumphs throughout the work. The music is genuinely fascinating, a tapestry of extravagant colors and textures. Borodin gave the two warring parties in the opera–the Russians and the Polovtsians–contrasting musical styles. The music of the Russians is based stylistically on Russian folk songs, though none are quoted literally, and the Polovtsian music is characterized by a Russian conception of the exotic music of the Orient–richly melismatic and chromatic.

Grant Park’s artistic director Steven Ovitsky deserves a lot of credit for letting this neglected masterpiece (which hadn’t been heard here since Lyric produced it almost 30 years ago) serve as the opening work for the Grant Park season, and particularly for assembling a roster of talent that could make a convincing case for it.

Metropolitan Opera bass Paul Plishka sang both the villainous Prince Galitsky and the Polovtsian Khan with considerable authority, though with uneven tone in the lower register. Both characterizations were effective and convincing, and though his voice was decidedly weak in the prologue, it sounded better as it warmed up through the performance–even if one would have preferred a darker, deeper color for this music.

Four soloists were imported from the Kiev Opera–a nice touch in that these singers had obviously sung their roles many times before and had developed detailed and authoritative interpretations. Baritone Dimitro Gnatiuk was a powerful and stately Prince Igor; if his voice wasn’t particularly beautiful or flexible, his conviction often compensated. Tenor Stepan Fitsich was also convincing as Igor’s son, though his upper range was decidedly weak in some crucial spots. Both had trouble sustaining long notes, and Gnatiuk was often flat in his lower range, especially in the opera’s climax. In fact, the Russian singers–much like Russian athletes–generally made a good first impression and entrance, but then quickly ran out of steam. Russian opera puts a higher premium on drama and volume than vocal technique. These singers’ voices may be appropriate for this kind of music, but I shudder to think of how any of them would sound singing Mozart. All of them had enormous and often annoying vibratos, which were based more on resonance than on manipulation of pitch.

The two Russian women, soprano Oksana Yatsenko as Princess Yaroslavna and mezzo-soprano Svetlana Kislaya as the Khan’s daughter, were studies in unusual musical overtones, making loud and often unfocused sounds that were quite interesting and true to their characters. Most distracting was Yatsenko’s painfully sharp singing in the love duet that closes the opera; she also tended to cut off high notes.

The local singers who were involved in this performance did a superb job, notably Richard Cohn and Jerome Padorr as the bumbling gudok players Skula and Yeroshka, and Tracy Mould Watson, with her spectacular soaring soprano, intoning the beautiful Polovtsian music of act two. She also had the superb accompaniment of harpist Elizabeth Cifani.

Grant Park’s principal conductor, Zdenek Macal, was clearly committed to letting this score be heard at its best, and he had obviously done an enormous amount of homework. The orchestra was shaky during the overture, with several brass blurbs and awkward tempo changes, but rose brilliantly to the challenge of many of the opera’s more complex passages. Grant Park chorus master Thomas Peck deserves much credit as well, for the chorus sang better than I’ve ever heard them; they sounded truly magnificent in the opera’s many grand scenes, all done with the proper Russian feeling and flavor, and with superb ensembling and balances among the various sections. In fact, everyone involved rose to the challenge of presenting such an unusual and difficult work in a very impressive way.

A spectacular new recording of the work has just come out on the new Sony Classical label, the first available in several years, done by the Russian Sofia National Opera. This is the first recording I have come across of the entire work (including Glazunov’s act three). Besides being a welcome and long-overdue document of the entire work, it also serves to show how carefully Prince Igor was cut for Grant Park’s presentation. It’s a very long opera (some four and a half hours), but the essence of it was adequately communicated even after it was trimmed to less than three hours, including an intermission. One could quibble about no librettos having been made available for a work sung in Russian. But perhaps the best thing was just to sit back and let the unusual sonorities pour over you during a gorgeous Chicago twilight.