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Monday, December 31, 2012

KNYAZ IGOR / PRINCE IGOR (1969)

There were quite a few of these filmed operas made back in the USSR days of cultural proselytization. First we give them Opera, then Communism! The form shouldn’t work at all with realistic locations working against the highly stylized format, and when you add on handsome actors lip-synching to pre-recorded operatic voices . . . it’s not exactly a recipe for success. Yet, many work like a charm, and feel much more like real movies than the currently fashionable HD-live stage productions with their odd Concept Driven directorial conceits and ironic modernizations. Nothing ironic about Brezhnev’s Russia. Anyway, opera already comes with ‘QUOTES’ around everything. The best of the lot is still the old BORIS GODONOV film from ‘54. Weirdly compelling, with stunning visuals of vast hordes playing out the drama on sets that manage to be paradoxically ultra-realistic & highly stylized. (It helps that it’s a work of genius, too.) But later films of lesser operas, like the unusually handsome b&w version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s THE TSAR’S BRIDE/’66, work almost as well within a more naturalistic manner. This one, from a heavily cut edition of the Alexander Borodin opera that was originally cobbled into a performing edition by Glazanov & Rimsky, shouldn’t hold together at all. But under its recklessly tuneful surface, director Roman Tikhommirfov successfully locates a narrative thread to work with. The basic story finds Prince Igor ignoring bad omens before defending his land against the Polovtsian Invaders. Back at home, his wife pines and Prince Galitsky revels in debauchery. Meanwhile, Igor’s captor, the great Polovtsi Khan, gets a major bromance on his Prince of a Prisoner, offering to make him a partner and rule all the Russias together. This is further complicated because Igor’s handsome boy is also enslaved, but by love for the Khan’s alluring daughter. The whole thing plays out like some sort of sung-thru Spaghetti Western, alternating vast landscapes, hordes of soldiers with loudly intimate operatic soliloquies, often sung in the character's head. (Nice way to avoid bad lip-synch.) The Corinth DVD is taken from a weary print that improves a bit in the last reel, but don’t let that worry you. Here, the sum is very much greater than the occasional mismatched parts. Oddly, the one can’t-miss element, the famous Polovtsian Dances don’t come off. The focus & energy they acquire in a restricted stage space dissipate out in the Steppes. NOTE: The 1972 date listed by IMDb likely reflects the film’s Stateside release.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Four or five of the Borodin melodies in here went from IGOR to B’way’s KISMET. More came from Borodin’s Sym. #2 and his great D Major String Quartet. (Stranger In Paradise; This Is My Beloved; Baubles, Bangles & Beads.) The show remains tuneful, corny and irresistible. Alas, the 1955 M-G-M film version is resistible. But it’s still fun to pick out the tunes.

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