The arrival from Moscow of Borodin's Prince Igor at the Coliseum this week sends a few shivers down the spine, and not just good ones. The Russian singing is tremendous, and the orchestra under the baton of Jan Latham-Koenig a powerhouse of gorgeous, rumbling sound. But as the second act Polovtsian Dances leapt into something vaguely resembling life, I knew what was up.
Ghosts of one of ENO's biggest ever flops were haunting the stage. Just seven years ago, ENO mounted Kismet, the 1950s Broadway musical borrowed from Borodin with a great cast (on paper at least) led by Michael Ball, Faith Prince and Alfie Boe. The miscalculation had been anticipated by Sean Doran, the ENO's then artistic director who resigned when the board insisted that the show should go on. Kismet did, and David Benedict in Variety said that anyone who ever thought of putting it on again should be boiled in oil. That may explain why ENO personnel were keeping a low profile as the Russians invaded.
Oh, and that's the other thing. Prince Igor, insofar as it is about anything at all, is about the unification of Russia after one prince has invaded the territory of another prince, Putin-style, in the name of the Motherland. So at the very moment when our government's political approval of Putin's foreign policy is at its lowest ebb for years, after the events in Ukraine and Crimea, it is delightfully ironic to have this epic of national upheaval and sacrifice presented as part of a UK-Russia Year of Culture.
There was no irony, however, in the applause of last night's audience at the Coliseum. They loved every minute of it, as indeed did I, even the curious chorus of big-bellied red devils (including a couple of large shrimps) in the Polovtsian Dances; the old-fashioned individual rhubarbing among the chorus - a trio of greasy-garbed ladies seemed to be chewing nuts and spitting out the shells at the same time in a strange court ritual; and the magnificent display of wigs and beards that have been passed down from generation unto generation since the opera's premiere in St Petersburg in 1890.
The great thing about the music, even in the "Strangers in Paradise" Kismet number, is that it never sounds stale or hackneyed. I was standing by for "Baubles, bangles and beads," but that one's derived from a Borodin string quartet, not Prince Igor. Now, all the first act music sounded fresh and unfamiliar, and the second act contains surely some of the greatest arias in the Russian repertory and, boy, did the soloists give them some welly.
The ENO Kismet was pretty ropey but it did at least have an element of kitsch-and-sink; there was a lot of fake Oriental sparkle and charm, and Michael Ball had some extremely garish, voluminous coloured shirts. The Novaya Opera Moscow production is visually tawdry, but not tawdry enough. It looks like a spectacle that's way past its sell-by date, but there are a few minor compensations: an extraordinary lumpen chariot for a mogul called Khan (no relation of Genghis, though he should be) that must belong on display in an agricultural museum; a glittering mountain range that looks like a party night for Daleks in Doctor Who; and a shimmering back cloth of the sea by night that will go straight back into storage for the next pantomime in Darlington.
This was the extreme opposite of a Richard Jones production which, for all its faults, is a cultural collectors' item, and I wouldn't have missed it, especially hearing it, for the world. I've been trying to catch up all week, too, with the final leg of David Hare's intelligence and surveillance drama, Salting the Battlefield, on the BBC iPlayer, and I finally crammed the 90-minute film into a mid-afternoon lull before the Prince Igor storm.
The title implies making money out of war, and the criticism was being levelled big time at the British prime minister, Alec Beasley, given a blistering, vulpine performance by Ralph Fiennes, not least in his climactic show-down with Bill Nighy's suavely disillusioned intelligence analyst who, by the drama's end, has been sucked back into a system he has come to abhor.
Hare's point is that the country - and our Russian operatic visitors will hardly raise an eyebrow at this - is being run by MI5, and this brilliant final episode in the drama implicated all of the establishment in the process. Queen Bee, the head of MI5, was played with supple intellectual sensuality by the great Australian actress, Judy Davis, organising various degrees of entrapment for all the spiders in her web: Nighy's Johnny Worricker himself, the prime minister, his deputy and possible successor (a luminous Saskia Reeves), her husband facing corruption charges in Kiev (cue for song in Prince Igor?), the editor of the Independent, played with languid bravura and an Anna Wintour hairstyle by Olivia Williams, and Rupert Graves as the financial brains behind the PM's corrupt money-making scheme to parlay his political pre-eminence into the role of a negotiating statesman for world peace.
Nighy's Johnny and his girlfriend, Margot Tyrell, deliciously played by Helena Bonham Carter, spent most of the film on the run after their cover had been blown in Turks and Caicos, the second instalment, and were pursued by a German-speaking cadre of agents from Lausanne to Heidelberg, to Frankfurt, changing cars, flats and identities as they went; in a well-controlled Hare joke, Johnny was at one stage "Gerry Marsden" and Margot, "Dusty Springfield."
Felicity Jones, who first broke through in Michael Grandage's time at the Donmar Warehouse (in great revivals of Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden and Schiller's Luise Miller) plays Johnny's daughter, an artist living in a warehouse loft with a deejay who is not quite as he seems. And this leads to a blistering father/daughter scene, one of several highly dramatic developments in which Hare breaks out of his political diagnosis and cynicism; the intensity of this was, literally, heart-stopping.
- Michael Coveney
- David Hare
- Olivia Williams
- Bill Nighy
- Ralph Fiennes
- English National Opera
- Prince Igor