ENO: War and Peace

War and Peace
(Libretto by the composer and Mira Mendelson, after Tolstoy; performed in Edward Downes’s English translation)

Sandra Zeltzer – Countess Natasha Rostova
Simon Keenlyside – Prince Andrei Bolkonsky
John Daszak – Count Pierre Bezukhov
Willard W. White – Field Marshall Kutuzov
Peter Sidholm – Napoleon
Graeme Danby – Count Ilya Rostov/Tikhon
Gwynne Howell – Old Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky/General Bennigsen
Stephanie Marshall – Sonya
Andrew Shore – Lieutenant Colonel Denisov/General Raevsky
Catherine Wyn-Rogers – Mayra Dmitrievna Akhrosimova
Rebecca de Pont Davies – Princess Marya
Bolkonskaya/Second French Actress
Susan Parry – Countess Hélene Bezukova
John Graham-Hall – Prince Anatole Kuragin/First Lunatic
Gerald O’Connor – Dolokhov/Marshal Davout/Marshal Belliard
Helen Field – Madame Peronskaya/First French Actress
Richard Roberts – General Barclay de Tolly/Platon Karatev

Director – Tim Albery
Set designer – Hildegard Bechtler
Costume designer – Ana Jebens
Lighting designer – Jennifer Tipton
Choreography – Vanessa Gray

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera conducted by Paul Daniel

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 27 October, 2001
Venue: Coliseum, London

Few operas have had so protracted a genesis as Prokofiev’s War and Peace, conceived in 1941 but only heard in anything approaching its entirety in 1959, six years after the composer’s death. Adapting Tolstoy’s epic for operatic usage might in itself be considered a tall order. Prokofiev had to contend with the onset of the ’Great Patriotic War’ in the USSR, and the need to bolster what had been planned as an intimate depiction of relationships between individuals with a paean to Russian heroism during the Napoleonic invasion, ensuring parallels with the present were overtly apparent.

English National Opera has a ’special relationship’ with this work. 29 years ago, as Sadler’s Wells Opera, the company gave the UK stage premiere, coinciding (if memory serves correctly) with a highly successful BBC television adaptation of the novel. That production, last revived in 1984 and still spoken of with reverence by those who saw it, helped to establish the opera as one, like Berlioz’s The Trojans (with which there are numerous parallels), that reinvests the epic conception of opera with sufficient relevance to revivify the genre.

Although broadly chronological in its treatment of Tolstoy, War and Peace is very much an opera of two halves – depending on sheer contrast, of character and of environment, for continuity over its thirteen scenes. It is here, above all, that this new production is found wanting.

Maintaining continuity entails motivating the ’peace’ scenes with an intensifying feeling that events are being played out against an altogether greater historical continuum. Too little of that is evident here. The opening scene at the Rostov Estate is simply, poetically portrayed, with Simon Keenlyside a personable, even vulnerable Andrei and Sandra Zeltzer a jejune but never childish Natasha – the dovetailing of their thoughts limpidly effected. The New Year’s Eve Ball scene, however, feels curiously small-scale, failing to project the sweep and opulence of what was, musically, a late addition to project a more public perspective onto the domestic intimacy.

Indeed, the remaining scenes of Part One continue this vein of characterisation, though with a welcome attention to detail. John Daszak is a sympathetic Pierre, ineffectual in the right sense. His nature is one of questioning even when action is paramount, as when he confronts Anatole – rakishly portrayed by John Graham-Hill – over the latter’s cynically-motivated attempt at elopement with Natasha. The contrast between Pierre and his wife, Hélene, pointedly Francophile in Tolstoy’s depiction and a suitably decadent Westerner in Prokofiev’s treatment, is well conveyed in Susan Parry’s indolent portrayal, and there are characterful contributions from Graeme Danby as Natasha’s status-conscious father, and Gwynne Howell as the caustic, disdainful Old Prince Nikolai.

Having opened the opera with a pulverising account of the choral Epigraph, a propagandist element that works through its musical conviction, Paul Daniel paces the first half deftly and securely, yet without a perceptible musical or dramatic momentum emerging. Tim Albery’s direction, low-key and unobtrusive but oddly generalised in time and place, could have set the tone more demonstratively – in a world of aristocratic order and routine about to be shattered.

The treatment of the ’War’ half of the opera might be described as worthy rather than inspired; compare the aforementioned BBC dramatisation with the graphic immediacy of Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1967 Russian film, its impact paralleled by the Kirov Opera’s staging at the Royal Opera House last year. Again, individual contributions are often telling. Peter Sidholm is a brooding Napoleon, thoughtful in his realisation that providence has been tempted once too often. If Willard White lacks comparable insight as Kutuzov, this in part reflects the artificial nature of his role – engineered by Prokofiev to fulfil that of ’glorious leader’ in appropriately Stalinist terms. Yet he invests enough authority and, in the pensive scene at Fili, deliberation for a sense of leadership to emerge.

The assorted generals, marshals and officials are ably taken, often in effective duplication by singers heard previously, and mention must be made of Richard Roberts in the brief but poignant role of Platon, shot through exhaustion in an intended instance of French brutality, but an archetypal casualty of War at any time in history. The chief failing is the listless, inexpressive reunion of Natasha and the dying Andrei, their scene crucial in similarly reconciling the diverse, often divisive, facets of the opera – personal and public, ’peace’ and ’war’ – into a dramatic whole. For all the grandeur of the people’s statement of intent at the close, the aftermath feels hollow when the work’s human core has been underplayed.

Throughout Part Two, Daniel’s alert, incisive conducting misses only the last degree of dramatic gravitas. Something for which Albery’s staging – with decent if unexceptionable use of filmed montage, but with evocative lighting by Jennifer Tipton in the scene of Moscow’s burning – fails to compensate.

At just on 210 minutes, little of consequence was omitted from a score whose ’definitive version’ was not arrived at in the composer’s lifetime. Overall, this is a staging that makes few obvious errors, but fails simply to assert the opera’s physicality of impact and range of emotional responses with the conviction needed. And, as with all such operas of its kind, Prokofiev’s epic needs unstinting conviction to release its creative potency. With a further nine performances scheduled, this production needs to galvanise itself into an experience beyond the sum of its parts.

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