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24 Jul 2019

A stirring War and Peace by WNO at Covent Garden

In an essay published in 1868, Tolstoy wrote: ‘What is War and Peace? It is not a novel, still less a poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is that which the author wished and was able to express in the form in which it has been expressed.’

WNO perform Prokofiev’s War and Peace at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Cast and Chorus of Welsh National Opera

Photo credit: Clive Barda

 

What had started life as a fictional narrative that was to dramatise fifty years of Russian history (at a time of national crisis following Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War) and to depict the same social milieu in the epochal years of 1812, 1825 and 1856, quickly outgrew the conventional form of the novel. In the end, content and purpose dictated structure, and the resulting expansive narrative of the years 1805-12 lacks the tidiness, balance and conclusiveness that the novel form demanded in the late-nineteenth century. It is also, in the words of the editors of a study of War and Peace published in 2012, the year of the two hundredth anniversary of Napoleon’s fateful invasion of Russia and the Battle of Borodino, ‘a founding epic for modern Russia and a meditation on war and history … one of the most read and most important novels ever written’. [1]

However, sprawling 19th-century novels - particularly those so labyrinthian, lacking in cohesiveness and clear resolution, and which foreground philosophical and political debates sometimes at the expense of focused characterisation - do not, in general, good opera libretti make. When Sergei Prokofiev and and his co-writer, and second wife, Mira Mendelson decided to adapt War and Peace for the Soviet stage during the 1940s, the composer was forced to grapple not just with the unconventional, uncontainable form of Tolstoy’s text, but also with the conventions of his own art form - was this to be a romance in the Tchaikovskian model or an epic history in the manner of Musorgsky? - and with the ideological demands of Stalinist propaganda. Prokofiev decided to keep opposing strands separate. What we have is a first 90-minute Act, Peace, followed by a longer second Act, War. In the first, the landowning classes - lovers of all things French - engage in social sorties against the backdrop of war; in the second, we have a violent, catastrophic clash of nations culminating in Napoleon’s 1812 retreat from Moscow, in which the aristocrats of part one are reduced to incidents in an epic historical narrative.

If adapting the novel for the operatic stage was a daunting task, then staging Prokofiev’s four-hour opera must be an even more formidable challenge: even if one’s budget were infinite, there are still the inherent contradictions within the drama to reconcile - between romance and realism, between social milieu and Soviet militarism, between individual relationships and the nation’s collective love for the Motherland. And, there’s the small problem of the lack of a definitive score. Following the completion of a vocal score in 1942, Prokofiev subsequently made a series of revisions during the years before his death in 1953 in an ultimately unfulfilled effort to have his work brought the stage. In mounting this production of War and Peace, first seen in Cardiff in September 2018 and given two performances at the Royal Opera House, director of WNO Sir David Pountney decided to make use of Prokofiev’s first score, which was revived by Prokofiev scholar Rita McAllister for a 2010 collaboration between Scottish Opera and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, but also include some of Prokofiev’s later additions and amendments. It’s sung in English and the projection of the persuasive translation is uniformly excellent.

WNO War and Peace. WNO Chorus.jpg
WNO Chorus. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Designer Robert Innes Hopkins brings the stage-embracing ‘bowl’ of 2016’s staging of Iain Bell’s In Parenthesis back into service. Around its top rim, a narrow platform permits onlookers a view of the action below. Behind, David Haneke’s video projections - which include extracts from Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1966 film of Tolstoy’s novel - offer a visual reconstruction of Russian history. The design has two-fold benefits in that it both allows individuals to emerge from the broader panorama of history and also creates a distancing effect - one furthered by the period costumes hanging from clothes-rails and wall-hooks either side of the stage - which suggest that we, alongside the Russian people, are peering back into the past. A further ‘layer’ is added by the presence of Tolstoy, seated at his desk at the start of the opera, his Cyrillic script projected on the backdrop above. As the characters formed by the writer’s pen - princes and peasants, the military and mothers clutching pitchforks - swarm around him, we get a strong sense of both a literary narrative and history itself in the making.

Lauren Michelle (Natasha) and Jonathan McGovern (Andrei).jpg
Lauren Michelle (Natasha) and Jonathan McGovern (Andrei). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

The opening of the opera proper takes one unawares though: the multitudinous personnel of the WNO Chorus mingle and meander about the stage as the orchestra tune up, and then suddenly we are bombarded with a blast of sound that might have come direct from the barricades. This is the voice of the Russian people, and they sing with all their hearts, here and in a series of flag-waving, social realist grand choruses, of their love for Mother Russia. The Chorus make a terrific thunder, and they are matched for energy and colour by the WNO Orchestra under Tomáš Hanus. Hanus relishes the moments of instrumental lift-off, when the heroic whoosh of brass and horns is complemented by the sparkling sweep of the harp - when outsize chandeliers descend low for the ball, or when the backdrop is engulfed in an inferno. But, he is painstaking also during moments of intimacy and (though they are fewer) psychological revelation, where the textures are clearly defined as inky bassoon, black bass clarinet and tense oboe delineate the merging of personal and political.

Pountney and Innes Hopkins at times lower a drop to push the action to the forestage, as when Andrei espies Natasha at her bedroom window or for the debate and deliberation in the Council of War bunker. Hanus also engenders a strong sense of movement in the dance episodes which punctuate the score, even as they rather stall the action - we’re reminded of Prokofiev the ballet composer. Sometimes Pountney overdoes the patriotism and propaganda, and there’s an unfortunate ‘comic’ military scene towards the close which had the Russian couple seated next to me in the stalls guffawing - though perhaps that was the intent.

Pountney’s management of the ‘whole’ is ambitious and accomplished. But, while the grand choruses make their impact, I’d have liked more detailed direction of the individual characters who are often pushed into the spotlight and then left to their own devices. That’s not to detract, though, from the marvellous singing on display from principals and chorus alike, many of whom take on three or four different roles and who display real commitment and stamina.

Mark Le Brocq (Pierre).jpg
Lauren Michelle (Natasha) and Mark Le Brocq (Pierre). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Pierre, whose love for Natasha remains unrequited, comes increasingly to the fore as the drama progresses and Mark Le Brocq offered a superb performance, communicating both strength and vulnerability, phrasing with tenderness but delivering with conviction. Jonathan McGovern used his strong, youthful baritone well, and developed a nice rapport with Lauren Michelle’s Natasha; the latter impressed as Jessica in Keith Warner’s staging of The Merchant of Venice in this house in 2017, and here the American soprano sang with lovely colour and warmth. The scene in which Natasha, now a military nurse, is reunited with the dying Andrei was the episode which initially inspired Prokofiev to attempt a setting of Tolstoy’s novel. Pountney eschews a battlefield demise and returns Andrei to the window wherein he first encountered Natasha, to which she returns in his dying moments. On the plus side, our bird’s-eye perspective is consistent with the distancing of the whole and places the beloveds at a historic remove. On the downside it denies their duet its centrality in the dramatic arc.

Adrian Dwyer sang half-a-dozen cameo roles and was excellent as the disreputable Anatole who steals Natasha’s heart and condemns her to social humiliation. James Platt reverberated richly as Count Rostov (and valiantly takes four other roles). David Stout truly excelled, in terms of both characterisation and musicianship, as Dolokhov, Denisov, Raevsky and as a steel-backed Napoleon, his voice bursting with pride and defiance in the latter incarnation, but always appealing. Jurgita Adamonytė was a vivacious Helene and Leah-Marian Jones (as Princess Marie Akrossimova) made a similarly strong and colourful contribution. Pountney rather sends up Field Marshal Kutuzov - presumably portraying him as a stand-in for Stalin - but Simon Bailey delivered a tremendously impassioned declaration during the war council.

The editors of the aforementioned Tolstoy On War remark that the premise of their collection of essays is that ‘the issues in Tolstoy’s novel are too complex to be comprehended satisfactorily within a single academic discipline. No one discipline owns war.’ One might perhaps suggest that the complexities of the novel are too vast and complex to be made cohesive within and communicated satisfactorily by any single art form? But, valiant ambition comes in all shapes and sizes, and we should be very grateful to Welsh National Opera for showing us the heroism of Prokofiev’s endeavour in such splendid fashion.

Claire Seymour

Prince Andrei Bolkonsky - Jonathan McGovern, Natasha Rostova - Lauren Michelle, Count Pierre Bezukhov - Mark Le Brocq, Princess Marya Bolkonskaya/Princess Marya/Aide de Camp of Murat/Mavra Kuzminichna - Leah-Marian Jones, Hélène Bezukhova/Aide de Camp de Prince Eugene/Dunyasha - Jurgita Adamonytė, Anatole Kuragin/First General/Kutuzov’s Aide de Camp & Adjutant & First Staff Officer/Aide de Camp of General Comans/Bonnet/Barclay - Adrian Dwyer, Count Ilya Rostov/Tichon/Berthier/Ramballe/Beningsen - James Platt, Old Prince Bolkonsky - Jonathan May, Jacquot/Second General/Second Staff Officer/General Belliard/Second Lunatic/Yermolov - Donald Thomson, Dolokhov/Denisov/Raevsky/Napoleon - David Stout, Balaga/Kutuzov/Davoust/Old Grenadier - Simon Bailey, Metivier/Servant - Julian Boyce, Vasilisa/Housemaid - Carolyn Jackson, Gavrila/Matveyev/Valet - Laurence Cole, Joseph - George Newton Fitzgerald, Matriosha/Trishka - Sarah Pope, Monsieur de Beausset/French Abbé/First Lunatic - Joe Roche, Fyodor/Ivanov - Rhodri Prys Jones, Karataev/General Pyotr Konovnitsyn -Gareth Dafydd Morris, Orderly/Gerard/French Officer - Owen Webb, Shopkeeper - Paula Greenwood, Dancers (Juan Darío Sanz Yagüe, Ashley Bain, Meri Bonet, María Comes Sampedro, David Murley, Emily Piercy, Eilish Harmon-Beglan); Director - David Pountney, Tomáš Hanus - Conductor Set, designer - Robert Innes Hopkins, Costume designer - Marie-Jeanne Lecca, Lighting designer - Malcolm Rippeth, Visual projection design - David Haneke, Assistant director - Denni Sayers, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Tuesday 23rd July 2019.



[1] Tolstoy On War: Narrative Art and Historical Truth in “War and Peace”, edited by Rick McPeak and Donna Tussing Orwin (Cornell University Press, 2012).

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