A review by Julia Gasper
It was a daunting undertaking to make an opera out of Tolstoy’s epic novel, both because of its gigantic scale and its immense reputation and prestige. Prokofiev started it in 1941, just before Germany declared war on Russia and embarked on another invasion like the one depicted in War and Peace. He worked on it for seven years and turned it into a colossal musical creation that is a monument to Russian national pride, culture, and identity. Even though the story starts about halfway through the novel, there is still an awful lot of complex plot to follow, and Prokofiev does not shy away from presenting the most tumultuous battle scenes and destruction on stage. He decided that it was possible to express anything in music, and the result is overwhelming.
The way David Pountney’s new production opened was ingenious, with a smock-clad white-bearded Tolstoy sitting writing at a desk, and being gradually surrounded by more and more dozens of characters crowding in and milling around him, dressed as peasants and nobles, soldiers and priests, until we felt the whole of Russian society was there. Then they turned into a chorus and joined to sing the terrifying news of impending war with such ferocity we felt as if an air raid siren had gone off. It invoked a real sense of dread and panic.
But the first half of the opera is devoted to the events of peace. Prince Andrei (Jonathan McGovern) sees the young and innocent Natasha (Lauren Michelle) in the tranquil surroundings of her parents’ country house and is enchanted by her. They meet again at a grand ball, and she is thrilled when he asks her to dance. They experience an idyllic love, a real meeting of minds. Lauren Michelle has a voice of diamond brilliance, and a willowy, flexible figure; she conveyed the girlish impulsiveness and dreaminess of Natasha perfectly, with exhilaration and rapture, while Jonathan McGovern, with his golden-toned classic tenor, made a splendid and ardent hero. The ballroom scene was enthralling, with graceful figures in subtly harmonized colour tones, twirling and revolving. Then Andrei’s family send him away for a year and are cold and discouraging to Natasha, who is lured into bad ways at the sophisticated salon of the cold-hearted Hélène (beautifully portrayed by Jurgita Adamonyte). Her unscrupulous brother Anatole (Adrian Dwyer) persuades Natasha to agree to elope with him from the house of Princess Akrossimova (Leah-Marian Jones). The reckless act is averted by Natasha’s loyal cousin Sonya (sympathetically performed by Samantha Price), and Andrei’s friend Pierre (Mark Le Brocq) who secretly loves Natasha himself, is left to explain to her that Anatole is already married.
When war comes in the second half of the opera, the characters are forced to concentrate on the noble and patriotic action, self-sacrifice instead of self-indulgence. Tragedy and calamity in some ways bring out the best in them and noble actions are inspired by terrible events. Both the Russian commander – the one-eyed Field Marshal Kutuzov (Simon Bailey) – and the French Emperor, Napoleon (David Stout), appear in the opera and present their strategies, their dilemmas and their hopes and fears as the tremendous battle of Borodino approaches. Napoleon is astounded by the resilience and the determination of the Russians defending their sacred land. From trained cavalry to peasant women with pitchforks, all are prepared to fight to the death and destroy everything they have rather than yield it to an invader. And the wily Kutuzov also knows when it is better not to give battle, but to retreat and simply starve the enemy. The way the battle scenes are presented, with images projected onto the upper part of the stage background, showing troops, with cannons, horses and flags, massed on the battlefield, is very effective, and the intermingling of figures dressed in World War II uniforms with others in Napoleonic garb, links the two eras in a subtle way. The story is taken up to the point when the invader is repelled, Moscow goes up in flames and Andrei dies of his wounds, nursed by Natasha, whom he finally forgives for her human weakness. Peace comes at last.
This very serious and lengthy opera is a demanding one for the audience, as well as the singers and the players of the orchestra, which Prokofiev uses in innovative and extraordinary ways. The orchestra, conducted or perhaps one should say marshaled, by Tomáš Hanus, is sometimes so powerful and the use of the brass and timpani so generous that it is advisable not to sit too close to the front. The production is altogether a stupendous achievement, and a very rare opportunity to hear and see this colossal creation, performed in English.