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Femininity and power in the opera Prince Igor

March 5, 2021

My interest in Russian opera is at best half as old as this blog, but so far my one of my favorites is Aleksandr Borodin’s Prince Igor (1869–87, posthumous premiere 1890). Online you can find a 2013 production by the Bolshoi Theater (embedded below) and a 1998 one by the Mariinsky Theater; both use a different order of acts and scenes than this libretto (see this table for how they match up).

I was excited to see Ray Alston’s recent article about Prince Igor. He argues that Borodin was a moderate feminist whose work teaching chemistry to future women doctors in the 1870s and 1880s was important to him. In this work Borodin was close to a group in between the radicals and the conservatives, “the Feminists, who sought to better the lot of women through better education and employment opportunities without necessarily calling for sweeping change”; this group was “more or less led by Maria Trubnikova, Nadezhda Stasova and Anna Filosofova” (695). After a magazine printed an article mocking the women’s courses, Borodin wrote in to defend his students, saying “I have never once met a [female] student who struggled in chemistry classes with the equations, formulas or calculations, no matter how complicated and new they were to her” (qtd. on 696).

These views inform how Borodin wrote the character of Yaroslavna, sung by a soprano. Alston argues that power was associated with low voices in nineteenth-century opera, not just men’s voices but baritones and basses rather than tenors (699). Female characters who held political power were rare and portrayed negatively; they were also usually sung by women with relatively low voices (701–2). At the beginning of Prince Igor, all is as expected: power is held by Igor, a baritone, who begins “surrounded by hosts of people who are literally singing praise to him” (699). But his authority is undermined by an inauspicious solar eclipse and his capture at the hands of Khan Konchak, a bass (699–700).

While Igor is a prisoner, there is a struggle for power back in his city of Putivl between his wife Yaroslavna and her brother Prince Vladimir Galitsky. Yaroslavna comes out mostly on top, and when Igor returns, he has fallen enough and she has risen enough that “Yaroslavna and Igor have become equals” (709). But unlike certain mezzo-soprano roles in other operas, Yaroslavna does not become masculine as she becomes powerful: “she exhibits traditional femininity in both her behavior and the voicing of her role,” and she “proves effective as a leader and thereby shows that a woman can succeed as a woman, that femininity is an asset and not a liability” (704). Women appeal to Yaroslavna to intercede on their behalf and save a woman abducted by Galitsky, making Yaroslavna into a mother-of-God–like figure (705).

Alston describes a dispute in the Borodin literature about whether and how Prince Igor Orientalizes its Polovtsian characters. Richard Taruskin argued in 1997 that “the music of the opera conveys messages of Russian racial superiority and glorifies Imperialism” (692). But Marina Frolova-Walker (in a 2007 book I just started that’s amazing so far) shows that not just the Polovtsian characters, but the Russian ones too exhibit “the musical features that Taruskin sees as Orientializing,” specifically “tied or syncopated melodic undulations, and the reversible chromatic pass between the fifth and the sixth degrees of the scale” (692, 692n2). (Frolova-Walker, by the way, has a lot of good stuff on her website.)

This article was perfect for my interests, because I have a pet theory about feminism and Orientalism in Prince Igor. The two most striking scenes in the opera show abducted women being abused for the pleasure of their male captors. In the Polovtsian camp, Khan Konchak offers his prisoner Igor his choice of the women Konchak has captured and enslaved, who are forced to sing and dance. Though they sing about their longing for their homeland, the song itself is beautiful, and their distress can only be imagined, not seen or heard. In Putivl, Prince Galitsky’s men abduct one woman, and her distress is evident (this is emphasized in the 2013 production, but it’s built into the libretto and music). The women of Putivl appeal to Galitsky, then Yaroslavna to save the woman, and their repeated pleading makes it clear that the abduction violated the norms of their community. That is, the contrast between these scenes is a kind of Orientalizing of the Polovtsians. Men abducting women because they can and want to seems normal, inevitable, and permanent in the world of the Polovtsians, but abnormal, immoral, and reversible (by a powerful woman) in twelfth-century Rus. Men are trash in both cultures, but it’s only the civilized men of Rus that it’s worth being disappointed in, not their exotic neighbors.

All page references are to Ray Alston, “‘Muzhaisia, kniaginia’: Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor and the ‘Woman Question,’” Slavic and East European Journal 64.4 (2020): 692–713 (no link). If you don’t have access to SEEJ, you might check out pp. 117–37 of his dissertation (different but related).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2021 4:16 pm

    I watched this (in the Met’s weird version that they broadcast) and was pretty impressed with the Yaroslavna plotline. Looking Borordin up after that, I wasn’t surprised to find he had feminist leadings. As for the Orientalism, I can’t speak to that because the Polovtsian dances etc were a dream sequence in the version I watched. Would like to watch a more traditional version and figure out what was going on.

    • March 8, 2021 10:01 pm

      I might have to rent the Met version to see how everything fits together when the dances are a dream sequence! If you ever do watch another version, I’d love to hear your thoughts about how they compare, Maya.

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