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Tolstoy's epic novel, the well-known scenario

31.07.2019


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Based on Tolstoy’s epic novel, the well-known scenario of War and Peace follows the trials and tribulations of Russian society as Napoleon edges closer to the country’s borders spinning his grand ideas of conquering Western Europe whilst, at the same time, stirring fear in Mother Russia. 

Combining public turbulence with private romance and temptation, the fate of the opera’s main characters - the spirited young lovers Natasha Rostova and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky - are intertwined with the idealistic aristocrat Count Pierre Bezukhov who’s seeking to understand his own identity amidst the brutal events of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion. 
Originally conceived for only 11 scenes, Prokofiev - who began working on War and Peace in the summer of 1942 - was spurred on in his endeavours by the German advance of the Soviet Union which began in June of the previous year. Because the Soviet authorities breathed heavily down his neck, he had to rework parts of Tolstoy’s text to acknowledge the country’s war effort. 

From a performance point of view, War and Peace has certainly had a chequered history. Plans were drawn up for its première at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre in 1943 to be directed by Sergei Eisenstein and conducted by Samuil Samosud - but nothing came of it. A year later, a private performance of eight scenes with piano accompaniment took place at the Moscow Actors’ Centre in October whilst a public concert performance of nine scenes, conducted by Samosud, was held in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire in June of the following year. The first fully-staged performance of this version was heard in June 1946 at the Maly Theatre (Mikhailovsky Theatre) in Leningrad, once more conducted by Samosud.
 
Then in February 1948, Prokofiev started work on a shortened single-evening version whilst at the same time making various revisions to his original scheme but, in the end, the 13-scene framework remained and it was this version that was first performed in May 1953 at the Teatro Comunale, Florence, conducted by Artur Rodziński, sadly two months after the composer’s death but with scenes 2 and 9 omitted. The Russian première of this version was duly given at the Maly Theatre in April 1955 conducted by Eduard Grikurov - in this case with the omission of scenes 7 and 11. 

However, all 13 scenes (but with cuts) came together for a performance at the Stanislavski-Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre, Moscow, in November 1957, under the baton of Samosud’s assistant, Alexander Shaverdov. Finally, on 15th December 1959, the epigraph and 13 scenes were staged uncut, conducted by Alexander Melik-Pashayev, at the Bolshoi.

Eight years later, the work arrived at the shores of England with a concert performance at Leeds Town Hall in April 1967 conducted by Edward Downes while the first fully-staged British production fell to Sadler’s Wells in October 1972.
Calling for a large cast coupled with a large orchestra and chorus getting a production of War and Peace off the ground is a mammoth undertaking for any opera company, so well done WNO for achieving such a feat and, indeed, for Sir David Pountney - who’s now preparing a new Ring cycle for Chicago’s Lyric Opera next year - for delivering such a colourful and, indeed, rewarding account of Prokofiev’s masterpiece which duly ended his nine-year tenure with the company.
Mounted in association with Theater Magdeburg and first seen at Cardiff’s Millennium Centre in 2018, Pountney’s staging proved a minimalist affair while WNO’s Czech-born music director, Tomáš Hanus, brilliantly conducted the Welsh National Opera Orchestra in a performing version influenced by Katya Ermolaeva and Rita McAllister’s research reconstructing Prokofiev’s original intentions for the opera whilst still including some of the later additions such as the Act I waltz. 
A well-cast production, the role of Natasha Rostova was admirably sung by Lauren Michelle who made her WNO début in a stunning performance as Jessica in the 2016 production of André Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice while Jonathan McGovern (making his WNO début) delivered a confident and assured performance as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. WNO regular, Mark Le Brocq - well-loved for his previous roles with the company appearing in Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, Alban Berg’s Lulu and The Merchant of Venice - put in a salutary performance as Count Pierre Bezukhov, looking the part from head to foot. They were a force to be reckoned with.

And so, too, were David Pountney’s creative team. Robert Innes Hopkins’ came up with an imaginative (but simple) set - a horse-shoe shaped, wooden-type box structure, in situ for the duration of the opera - which was complemented by a cinematic screen that flashed an ongoing series of smart and inventive video sequences conjured up by David Haneke adding greatly to the overall stage picture whilst round the top edge of the set a small group of passers-by were observing the action taking place beneath them as if revisiting history.

In the famous ball scene in which Natasha set eyes upon Andrei for the first time, one was suitably transported to imperial Russia by a colourful video sequence of sparkling white and gold-leafed chandeliers waltzing to the music of the night in contrast to the dark side of the story where heroic film footage from Sergei Bondarchuk’s acclaimed 1966 film of Tolstoy’s novel vividly illustrated the battle of Borodino while the Great Fire of Moscow in 1812 was realistically portrayed by one of the most inventive and telling video sequences of the entire opera. 

Malcolm Rippeth’s atmospheric and moody lighting proved spectacular and realistic, too, while Marie-Jeanne Lecca - a long-standing creative partner of Sir David Pountney - came up with a formidable wardrobe that was a feast for the eyes especially the uniform for Jonathan May’s eccentric portrayal of Old Prince Bolkonsky who radiantly sang a lovely and nostalgic song praising his homeland. Really, I don’t think he would have looked out of place as a follower of the Kaiser Chiefs! 

As a curtain-raiser while the orchestra was tuning up, a character in the guise of Tolstoy dressed all in white sporting a long-white beard was seen working at his desk with a white-quilled pen writing his famous story with his Cyrillic script projected on a screen above him whilst the characters contained within the story - peasants, military, aristocrats and so forth - came together one by one merging on stage into an impressive statuesque formation before leading into the opening chorus that speaks of heroism and Mother Russia. And hats off to Welsh National Opera Chorus, so well-trained by Stephen Harris.

But Sir David Pountney has the last word. He really has to: ‘War and Peace is one of the most famously demanding of operatic scores deploying massed choruses and a huge gallery of small roles to give authenticity to the great national drama of war and survival that it depicts. It is a superb showcase for WNO’s justly-famous chorus and for a company which prides itself on collective excellence. War and Peace, therefore, joins with all the great war epics in being able to shift in a moment from public to private drama, from intensity of personal emotion to the surge of national determination and this is ideal territory for the language of opera: to thrill us and move us on the grandest and most intimate scale.’ 
This production by WNO certainly did that alright. Encore!

Tony Cooper

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