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Leo Tolstoy by Ivan Kramskoi
30 Dec 2007

Prokofiev's War and Peace at the Met

There is no middle ground in War and Peace — or, rather, it’s all middle ground, like a battlefield, and you may feel as if every soldier in Russia (and in France) has marched over you.

Sergei Prokofiev: War and Peace

Andrei: Vasili Ladyuk; Natasha: Irina Mateva; Pierre: Kim Begley; Anatol: Oleg Balashov; Sonya: Ekaterina Semenchuk; Kutuzov: Samuel Ramey
Production: Andrei Konchalovsky; Set Design: George Tsypin. Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Metropolitan Opera, December 15, 2007


But you will also feel as if you knew each and every one of them — there is nothing monochrome or impersonal about the onslaught.

The attempt to make an opera out of Russia’s emblematic epic novel is so improbable that even in the hands of a genius it was unlikely to be anything but a succès d’estime. As companies have enlarged their jaws sufficiently to encompass it, as orchestras and choruses and singers have trained themselves to handle it, War and Peace has revealed itself as one of those masterpieces almost too grand for this grandest of art forms: As with the Ring and Les Troyens (and Khovanschina), War and Peace reveals itself at every new hearing as full of new depths, new angles, unplumbed riches. This is an opera that cannot be undertaken casually, but if a company has the resources to present it, it’s almost a crime not to. That the Kirov, with all its tradition and its position in Russian culture, should bring it off magnificently is hardly a surprise; that the opera could be co-produced with the Metropolitan with all of its very dissimilar resources (though the conductor and many singers and an increasing number of designers share both stages) and bring itself glory was by no means a foregone conclusion. The first run, six years ago, was spectacular; the revival is nothing short of a major triumph, the very grandest game in town. (And that town, let me remind you, is New York.)

For those new to War and Peace, I advise: read the synopsis carefully a couple of times (even if you did read the novel twenty years ago, and remember perfectly well who Hélène and Anatol are, and Andrei’s rude old father, and Natasha’s foolish, kindly one) but do not pay too close attention to the subtitles; the text will only distract you from the music and the acting. The story of Act I has been boiled down to bare essentials: Russian nobles thinking about love and dances and the various dissatisfactions of their lives; a young girl accepts a proposal of marriage, then a proposal of a different kind; her heart breaks but recovers — like Russia, she’s tougher than she looks. More interesting than the dialogue is the variation of orchestral grandeur (for the balls) and intimacy (for nature, or private reflection) that is going on behind and beneath and all around it. George Tsypin’s setting is the world as a baroque ballroom, with columns or flats descending to whisk us here or there, never leaving the globe behind. Then just as we get involved in the quotidian round of petty existence, a very Russian chorus interrupts: Napoleon has invaded Russia. The atmosphere changes at a stroke; the mood we have yielded to is shattered.

In Act II, armies march here and armies march there — Prokofiev composed these scenes after scoring films for Eisenstein, knowing what audiences now expected in the way of realism and willing to attempt it in a most unrealistic medium. Not coincidentally, while he composed, the Germans had Moscow under siege — the intended audience knew the experience of war as modern audiences (especially in the west) do not. There are stretches not easy to accept, not easy to make sense of: why is this scene here? Why is there a similar one right after it?

You have to trust Prokofiev — and also the master of the revels, Valery Gergiev. Prokofiev knows what he’s doing here (he didn’t always), and Gergiev knows the score as perhaps no one else on earth knows it; yield to their authority and you will feel you have lived through a transformative experience. And just when the battle scenes and the terrible scenes of what goes on around the battle reach fever pitch — the terrorism, the looting, the ravaging, the brutalization, the untold petty heroisms of ordinary people — we reach the grandeur of the burning of Moscow, perhaps the pivotal event of Russia’s history, at least in its sense of self, at least as Prokofiev’s far from disinterested patron Stalin wanted it to be seen. Then, with no sense of anticlimax but a magnificent consummation, we are in the bedroom of the dying Andrei, and he and Natasha recollect the earlier scenes of their love against a fabric, choral and orchestral, that jumps from the personal to the general moment by moment. Such musical recollections are a sentimental “convenience,” familiar from fifty operas — but their use here is anything but sentimental; it is on a par with Tolstoy’s mirror for Russian history in simple, single persons. The orchestration rewards attention at every spare moment — the dances recall Prokofiev’s whirling, astringent ballet scores, Andrei’s death is one of the subtlest bits of scene-painting of the twentieth century, and there are wonderful new details to discover with each hearing.

Andrei Konchalovsky’s production neglects nothing the opera calls for, from gypsies at a louche café to madmen wandering through the cinders of Moscow to ten — make that twenty — or is it forty? — ladies (and lords) a-dancing. The tale of putting the whole production together with all its constituent parts running smoothly would probably furnish a Tolstoy with enough material for another 800-page novel. The vocal requirements called for double casting to be sure of getting through the run without undue disaster — I heard the Met debuts of two exceptional singing actors, Vasili Ladyuk as Andrei and Irina Mataeva as Natasha. Ladyuk lacks the easy power Hvorostovsky brought to the role last time around, but seemed all the more human, both falling in love and fading away. Mataeva does not radiate ecstasy in the opening scene as Netrebko did (it’s fun, though, today when she is a fixture of the operatic scene, to remember just how much Netrebko did that, and what a thrill she was) — but Mataeva spins a lovely lyric soprano and portrayed to perfection the adorable, uncertain girl thrilled with her first ball, with Andrei’s attentions and, later, with Anatol’s more sensuous ones, suicidal at her betrayal, then redeeming at Andrei’s deathbed. Kim Begley’s Pierre gathers authority across the evening, as the character does — we know these experiences have changed Pierre because his voice expresses that, and because we feel we have shared them. Samuel Ramey’s wobble still appears to thrill the crowd, but I think a Kutuzov who did not sound eighty years old could be just as effective. The fifty (is it?) smaller roles all fit, each significant in its place — there is less than usual of the bad Met habit of turning to face the audience rather than the person to whom one is “speaking.”

Gergiev and the battalions supporting him in every department reveal War and Peace as one of the great achievements of opera, in the twentieth or any other century. You can’t love opera and not want to thrill to it, and be grateful to Gergiev and the Met for bringing it to you.

John Yohalem

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