War and Peace (sung in English)
Andrey Bolkonsky Simon Keenlyside
Natasha Rostova Catrin Wyn-Davies
Pierre Bezukhov John Daszak
Field Marshal Kutuzov Willard W White
Napoleon Peter Sidhom
Mariya Akhrosimova Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Sonya Stephanie Marshall
Helene Susan Parry
Denisov / Rayevsky Andrew Shore
Old Prince Bolkonsky / Bennigsen Gwynne Howell
Anatole Kuragin / First Lunatic John Graham-Hall
Dolokhov / Belliard / Davout Clive Bayley
Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 6 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Originally conceived in the wake of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the complicated performance history of War and Peace makes it one of the archetypal problem pieces of the 20th century. Prokofiev wrote more music than can be comfortably accommodated in a single evening (some of it composed under duress). Hence compromises must be made in the concert hall as on the stage. The many politically correct choruses and socialist realist vignettes can be pruned back, but uncertainties remain even in the penultimate scene, the opera’s best. When the dying Prince Andrey recalls his first waltz with Natasha one can never be sure how much of it he will remember. Suffice to say he remembered a great deal of it here!
A long evening then, sticking closely to the 2001 ENO staging by Tim Albery. It might have been wise to cut a couple of the plot-stalling partisans’ choruses from Scene 8. Nevertheless, the text was close to ideal and if the translation lacked the impact of the original Russian it worked surprisingly well with singers capable of putting it across. Catrin Wyn-Davies, singing the role of Natasha for the first time, replaced Sandra Zeltzer; otherwise the principals were unaltered and no one had to sing from a score.
Launching the evening with the granitic choral Epigraph rather than the limp-wristed Overture, Paul Daniel plotted a scrupulous, dutiful and eventually inspiring course through the public and private drama. He is still a little too brisk to give proper emotional weight to the yearnings of Andrey and Natasha in the opening scene, but it would be unfair to describe his phrasing as stiff. Things improve in the ballroom, a brilliantly conceived scene that introduces us to characters who could otherwise seem pretty unintelligible later on. Amazing to think that, as David Nice’s excellent note reminded us, it was added at a fairly late stage. And Andrey and Natasha did actually waltz in the skeletal semi-staging.
In Part Two, the offstage explosions of War were rather muted and the hard-working Daniel tried hard to engender sufficient gravitas. There were predictable problems of co-ordination despite the television screens dotted about at Circle height and intended to help those performers placed in front of the conductor. Someone had decided to replicate the production’s offstage drumming by placing players at the far end of the Albert Hall. The results were predictably Ivesian. But then things weren’t that much happier when they joined the orchestra on stage.
The reunion scene of Andrey and Natasha was as profoundly moving as ever, though I dislike the way Natasha retreats so early (as she did in the stage production) presumably to reinforce the notion that any promise of happiness between these two is mere illusion, social divisions already having done their worst. Musically, as in terms of the plot, the scene is crucial in reconciling the diverse, seemingly irreconcilable aspects of the public and the personal, of war and peace and even the obligatory class politics.
Is it invidious to single out stars? Even with some doubling up, the full cast list would be huge – another reason why we don’t hear the piece more often. Nevertheless, Willard White’s not inappropriately mature Marshal Kutuzov scored a palpable hit with the Prommers, his stage presence undimmed even if one had to strain to identify notes. The Napoleon, as is almost always the case, went down less well, having failed to provide the imposing counterweight required (Prokofiev’s fault maybe). John Daszak’s Pierre Bezukhov compensated for a lack of vocal allure with singing and acting of some fervour. Best of all, Simon Keenlyside gave us his wonderfully mellifluous and assured Andrey, every word audible, the tone only compromised as he sought to convey the approach of death.
Singing opposite him, Catrin Wyn-Davies as Natasha was firmer and certainly had more of the words than her predecessor, yet didn’t efface memories of the young Felicity Lott in ENO’s previous, Colin Graham production. The house’s oft-threatened chorus, grabbing their opportunities to impress, sounded just a shade underpowered at first in the vastness of an unfamiliar venue, but came up trumps in the final chorus, recycling Kutuzov’s big tune (originally part of the Ivan the Terrible film music) with real aplomb.
With touching informality, Paul Daniel dedicated the performance of what is, after all, nothing if not a company show, to the memory of Susan Chilcott. To those who love this work and this company, it was a great night.