01 Nov 2005

BORODIN: Prince Igor (Highlights)

Not long ago the record label Delos announced that they would embark on a series of studio recordings of highlights from operas. This intriguing idea seemed to address the recording crisis spawned by the shrinking market for full studio sets, with their high cost for both producer and purchaser.

The first disc, of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, featured Dmitri Hvorostovsky in one of his signature roles, Prince Yeletsky, as well as Elena Obraztsova, and Sergei Larin. Despite this fairly successful disc, the series apparently suffered a quiet, ignored death.

Naxos may feel Delos had a good idea, as indicated by a recent release of studio-recorded highlights from Borodin’s Prince Igor. No star as glittery as Hvorostovsky headlines the cast, but the CD offers both the well-known selections (such as the overture and the Polovtsian Dances, here performed with chorus) and four arias.

But why only four arias? At 57 minutes, the CD has plenty of room for more music from the opera, and 7:32 of that total goes to a decent but not outstanding run through of Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia. Such stingy allotment of the opera’s music suggests that Naxos does not feel the opera has that much that can be considered a highlight.

The frustration suggested here derives from the enjoyment produced by the four arias as recorded. Taras Shtonda, a bass, puts across a wonderful comic aria, “I don’t like boredom,” a paean to the sentiment so well expressed once by Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be king!”

Angelina Shvachka’s ripe, very Slavic mezzo will not be to everyone’s taste, but her aria, “Daylight is fading,” showcases Borodin’s atmospheric way with melody. The similarly titled “Slowly the day was fading,” sung by tenor Dmytro Popov, is a seductive ballad, though Popov’s unrelenting volume might be more effective live.

Finally, the title character, sung by Mykola Koval, sings the great “There is neither sleep, nor rest.” Koyal’s vibrato is unrestrained, where restraint could well have been urged, and his top threatens to collapse on him, but he certainly delivers on the drama of this piece.

Naxos, for once, provides a bilingual libretto (Russian/English), but since only the four arias and the choral Polovtsian Dances require translation, no less should be expected, even at Naxos’s prices.

The singers mostly come from the Ukraine National Opera. Kuchar leads the Ukraine National Radio Symphony with authority, and the recorded sound has fine balance and clarity.

Again, surely additional music from the opera should have been included for this disc to be a true “highlights” disc. As it is, Naxos has provided, for modest cost, an enjoyable disc of music from an opera that remains an obscurity, despite the fame of the overture and the Polovtsian Dances. Better singing can be heard on the complete sets of the opera, which can be found by the diligent and dedicated. Otherwise, this Naxos disc will hopefully serve to introduce some listeners to a few of the other delights of the work.

And Naxos will, one hopes, continue in the effort to keep the embers of operatic studio recording aglow, even if it has to be this sadly abridged form.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy