WNO’s Stirring Production of Prokofiev’s Unwieldy Theatrical Epic Rewards Ambition

19/09/2018

Prokofiev, War and Peace: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Tomáš Hanus (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 15.9.2018. (GPu)

WNO’s War and Peace (c) Clive Barda

Cast included:

Andrei – Jonathan McGovern
Pierre – Mark Le Brocq
Natasha – Lauren Michelle
Balaga/Field Marshall Kutuzov/ Davoust – Simon Bailey
Hélène/Aide de Camp de Prince Eugene/Dunyasha – Jurgita Adamonytė
Dolokhov/ Denisov/ Napoleon/ Raevsky – David Stout
Count Rostov/Tichon/ Berthier/Ramballe/Beningsen – James Platt
Anatole/First General/Kuznetsov’s Aide de Camp/Aide de Camp de General Compans/Bonnet/Barclay – Adrian Dwyer
Seven Dancers – Colm Seery, Juan Dario Sanz Yagűe, Asley Bain, Meri Bonet, Lucy Burns, Maria Comes Sampedro, Lauren Wilson

Production:

Director – David Pountney
Set designer – Robert Innes Hopkins
Costume designer – Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting designer – Malcolm Rippeth
Video projection designer – David Haneke
Assistant director/Choreographer – Denni Sayers
Chorus master – Stephen Harris

Prokofiev’s heroic attempt to ‘mine’ the stuff of an opera out of Tolstoy’s War and Peace had, and has, its problems, but this production was a brave (and surprisingly successful) attempt at a well-nigh impossible task. The result of all Prokofiev’s work was inevitably something a good deal more schematic than the subtleties of the novel’s 1360 pages (in the copy I currently have on my shelves). Prokofiev began work on the planned opera in the mid-1930s, shortly before his return to Russia, drafting a synopsis and a libretto with the poet Mira Mendelssohn (who was to become the composer’s second wife) initially in the early 1940s. From an early stage they conceived of the planned work as a kind of theatrical diptych – the first panel of which would concentrate on Natasha’s amorous history, developing as it were under the shadow of oncoming war with Napoleon; the second panel was to be almost exclusively concerned with that war.

I remember that when I first read Tolstoy’s novel, as an undergraduate, I thought, with the arrogance of youth, that ‘Love and War’ would have been a better title than the one its author gave it. Perhaps Prokofiev read the novel in that way too, even if he called the two parts of the resulting opera ‘Peace’ and ‘War’.

In addition to the enormous difficulties involved in making an opera from this huge novel without reducing it to travesty, Prokofiev had to struggle with the demands of the Stalinist censors and the prevailing political / nationalist attitudes, which involved him in years of amendments, additions (and subtractions) of text and music (not least in the light of the changing political relationship between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. It is a poignant thought that Prokofiev, after all the effort he had put into it, never saw anything like a ‘complete’ staging of his opera. He was still making revisions in the years before his death on March 5, 1953 (history demonstrated its well-developed sense of irony by ensuring that Stalin died on the very same day!). It was only in 1959 that the ‘complete’ (a term hard to employ with a precise meaning in this context) War and Peace was staged at the Bolshoi.

For this immensely ambitious (and largely very successful) staging of the opera, David Pountney – sadly starting his last year with Welsh National Opera) – chose to use the new scholarly edition by Katya Ermolaeva and Rita McAllister, though making some abridgements, chiefly in Part Two, so as, in his own words, to ‘strip away some of [the] bombast’. While the result could hardly be described as a sleek operatic ‘machine’ (Henry James, with little justice, called the novel itself a ‘fluid pudding’ and a ‘loose, baggy monster’) it certainly makes for a powerful evening in the theatre, an evening which felt a good deal shorter than its almost four hours (including an interval).

The staging, the orchestral playing and the singing of the chorus were more or less unqualified successes, and the soloists generally acquitted themselves well – the near impossibility of investing individual characters with plausible psychological depth being the fault of the work not of the singers.

The set is a wooden construction which enables some action to be overlooked by other characters (chorically, as it were), and which effectively frames a screen on to which a series of shifting images can be back-projected. Most of these serve (very effectively) to give a sense of huge scale to the proceedings, a sense otherwise unobtainable short of the deployment of a cast of, literally, thousands. Some of these projections included, for example, swirling chandeliers to complement (and expand, as it were) the ball in St. Petersburg, early in ‘Peace’. In the second part, extensive clips of battlefield action from Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1966 film of War and Peace, while never distracting from the ‘real’ action on the stage, complemented the sense of epic scale created by much of Prokofiev’s orchestral writing.

Throughout the opera, Prokofiev is, generally, more successful in terms of the intensity of his orchestral writing (which can be tender and delicate as well as grand and stirring) than in word setting. The orchestra of WNO were in superb form – at various points, the strings, the brass and the percussion were all deeply impressive – and Tomáš Hanus kept the music moving forward with considerable (but unrushed) momentum, always with a perceptive and sensitive use of dynamic shifts and of the needs of the singers.

I can’t remember ever writing a review of a WNO production in which I didn’t praise the work of the chorus. This, though, was one of their very finest hours. In a sense they are the work’s major ‘character’, as the Russian people. They articulated nationalist passions with remarkable power and the results were often spine-tingling. A.E. Housman said that the test of ‘real’ poetry was that it made the hairs on the back of the neck bristle; the same test can be applied to choral singing and the WNO chorus certainly passed such a test. Indeed, the powerful beauty of their singing sometimes made one forget the grim irony of what they were singing – the assertion, for example, that their bravery would guarantee Russian ‘freedom’.

Where the main soloists were concerned, a major problem is that the necessarily episodic nature of the work – it carries the subtitle ‘lyric-dramatic scenes from Tolstoy’s novel’ – means that there is little opportunity to sustain or develop characters. The one exception is Pierre Bezhukov sung here very well by Mark Le Brocq, who grows in wisdom, self-knowledge and emotional maturity, not least as a result of his contact with ‘ordinary’ Russians. Pierre has often been thought, for obvious reasons, to have affinities with Tolstoy himself. This was reinforced by one of Pountney’s striking directorial decisions. The evening began with Tolstoy seated at a table centre stage, writing (the results of his writing being projected behind him). At the end of the opera Pierre was seated at the same table, with a pen in his hand, passing sheet after written sheet to Natasha, just as Tolstoy passed sheet after sheet of his manuscript of War and Peace to his wife Sophia for copying (she was one of the few who could read his handwriting!).

The subtlety of Tolstoy’s characterisation of Natasha is largely lost in the opera. We see her at several different points on her emotional trajectory, but the text and the music offer little to explain how she got from one point to the next. Lauren Michelle, though her voice occasionally became a little shrill, sang expressively and often beautifully, realising both Natasha’s youthful naivety and her later painful experiences in a distinctly moving manner. Her doomed lover Andrei was sung with very attractive and unforced lyricism by Jonathan McGovern, notably (but not exclusively) in his early nocturnal serenade at the awakening of his love for Natasha, and in his deathbed scene in Part Two.

Many members of the cast had to sing more than one role – for obvious economic reasons. So, for example, Leah-Marian Jones sang Princess Marie Akrossimova, Princess Marya, an Aide de Camp de Murat and Mavra Kuzminichina, while David Stout was called on to embody Dolokhov, Denisov, Raevsky and Napoleon. James Platt sang five roles (see the cast list at the head of this review), Simon Bailey a further three, and so on. All made a favourable impression in this operatic multi-tasking. Perhaps predictably, David Stout and Jurgita Adamonytė were particularly effective in their several roles.

The power, and the intermittent subtlety, of Prokofiev’s music carried one along like a force of nature. Looking back one recalled particular episodes, such as the music for the Ball in Part One, making one think of a more astringent Tchaikovsky, or some of the immensely powerful nationalistic choruses, where one hears echoes of Mussorgsky, though the music remains is still distinctively Prokofiev’s own.

All involved in this production – most obviously David Pountney and Tomáš Hanus, plus every member of the cast, orchestra and chorus deserve one’s gratitude for the prodigious amount of work they have obviously put in to bring off this flawed masterpiece as well as they did.

David Pountney was appointed Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Welsh National Opera in 2011. His title was later changed to Artistic Director, In the spring of this year, WNO announced that it would not be renewing Pountney’s contract beyond the summer of 2019. No official reason was given for the decision, but one has heard talk that Pountney’s ambition was his downfall. That his programming of relatively unfamiliar repertoire may perhaps have cost something in terms of ticket sales, though it gave an entirely new vigour to the work of a company that was becoming somewhat stagnant before his arrival. His own productions were unfailingly of the highest interest (though perhaps some of the other directors he employed produced rather less valuable results). He will be much missed, though wishes the best to his successor, Aidan Lang.

Glyn Pursglove

 For more about WNO in 2018/19 click here.

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