For years I have been fascinated by the Gliding Dance of the Maidens chorus from the Polovtsian dances of Borodin’s opera, Prince Igor. That earwormy tune has been subject to various interpretations over the decades since it was first produced.
The song is the opening number of a suite of dances which close Act 2 of the opera (and which Borodin had more or less complete by 1875). Prince Igor, ruler of Novgorod, has been captured in battle against the Polovtsy (who nowadays we call the Cumans). The Polovtsian ruler, Khan Konchak, orders the slaves to entertain him. This is what it looks like as an opera, performed here by the Kirov ballet. (Don’t worry about the words, they don’t really matter. But if you want the full lyrics with archaic Russian spelling and naively optimistic transliteration you can get them here.)
Two things to say about this. First off, it is tied intimately to the cultural interpretation and justification of Russian penetration into Central Asia as part of the Great Game of the nineteenth century. The setting is the steppes in the area where the rivers Don and Volga almost meet, north of the Black Sea and the Caspian, in the year 1185, and the opera is based on a famous epic poem (Слово о плъку Игоревѣ) about Igor’s campaign. The staging of the opera is clearly intended to be more obviously Asiatic. Between 1859 and 1867, the Russian Empire had extended deep into Central Asia, and now controlled directly or indirectly all of what we now know as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The integration of the Polovtsy into the future Russian Empire, despite their quaint dancing habits, is being held up as a positive example for the future of the Russian empire. (Borodin, himself the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince, had roots the other side of the mountains but in the same general area as the overt setting of the opera.)
The other thing is that the lyrics are pretty unimpressive, which I guess is standard for opera. I suppose it will do as the lament of the maidens for their enslaved state, but the vowels don’t always seem to me to fit the music, and I find the родной/родная repetition in the second line irritating. Perhaps Borodin was aware of this, which may partly explain why he procrastinated about finishing the opera.
|Улетай на крыльях ветра
Ты в край родной, родная песня наша,
Туда, где мы тебя свободно пели,
Где было так привольно нам с тобою.
Там, под знойным небом,
Там так ярко солнце светит,
|Fly away on the wings of the wind
To our native land, O you, our native song
To that place where we sang to you so freely,
Where things were so idyllic for you and me.
There under the sultry sky
There the sun shines so brightly
It’s a difficult tune to fit words to, and in my view the only decent lyrics were produced by jazz clarinettist Artie Shaw (the closing bars are modified a bit to suit his mode of playing), playing it here in 1940 with vocals by Pauline Byrne. Shaw (or his lyricist, but I am reasonably sure it was Shaw) has taken the theme of female longing from the original and transferred it from the distant homeland to a departed lover:
You’re gone, but still in my fantasy
Your memory lives on – each night you are close to me.
One day your love died, but somehow it always seems
You’re ever at my side in all of my dreams.
And though I’m still in love with only a phantom kiss
I know I’m just a fool to torture my heart like this.
You’re gone, but still you belong to me
Your memory lives on in my fantasy.
Unfortunately the much better known English-language version is "Stranger in Paradise", from the 1953 musical Kismet set in the Baghdad of the Arabian Nights. The song comes from the middle of Act One, and is originally meant to be a duet between the female romantic lead, Marsinah, and the caliph of Baghdad who is for some reason disguised as a gardener, as they fall in love at first sight. (I will pass rapidly over the 1978 version, Timbuktu!, starring Eartha Kitt and set in Africa.)
The best known rendition is this one by Tony Bennett, and apparently it featured as a recurring theme in the 1999 movie version of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions, but I can’t find good videos for either of those, so here is Sarah Brightman, attempting to look like a cross between an Oriental princess and the Fairy Queen – and what is she standing on? (One other problem I have with it apart from the naff lyrics is
Take my hand, I’m a stranger in paradise.
All lost in a wonderland, a stranger in paradise.
If I stand starry-eyed there’s a danger in paradise
For mortals who stand beside an angel like you.
I saw your face ascending,
Out of the common place and into the rare.
And somewhere out in space I hang suspended
Until I’m certain that there’s a chance that you care.
Oh, won’t you answer the fervent prayer of a stranger in paradise?
Don’t send me in dark despair for all that I hunger for.
But open your angel’s arms to the stranger in paradise,
And tell him that he will be a stranger no more.
But in recent years the original Russian version has had two quite remarkable revivals. Arranged by Naoto Suzuki, and with vocals by Martha Matsuda, it was used as music in two Playstation 2 games: it is the introductory theme for The Sword of Etheria (originally OZ -オズ-), released in 2005 in Japan and 2006 in Europe, and also one of the tracks on Dance Dance Revolution Extreme 2 (released in 2005). (Like Prince Igor, Sword of Etheria is about combat in an imaginary but vaguely Asian setting, though I believe the romance elements are omitted.) I think this is fantastic, and this fan mashup makes me want to go out and get Sword of Etheria (even though we don’t have a Playstation):
The other remarkable recent version was the 1997 single, “Prince Igor”, a duet between Californian rapper Warren G. and Norwegian opera singer Sissel Kyrkjebø (full version which doesn’t allow embedding here, shorter version below). Once again, the lyrics are nothing special, but the video is very sfnal and very political: Warren G and his mates take over an abandoned NASA mission control building (the slaves’ descendants striking back and capturing the prestige technology projects of their former masters); and they then discover Sissel as an extraterrestrial being. I wondered if the choreography of the female dancers towards the end was in part a homage to the original Polovtsian maidens from Borodin’s opera.
This entry is long enough, and if you have listened to even one of these clips you are probably thoroughly earwormed for the rest of the day, but I just want to give one last shout out to Natasha Morozova, here performing in Sydney. I’m off to enjoy the good weather now.