Opera Profile: Prokofiev’s ‘War & Peace’

By David Salazar

Sergei Prokofiev’s operatic output isn’t all that well-known. While small bits from many of his works have made it into the mainstream via different means (a violin transcription of the March from “The Love for Three Oranges, for example), only one opera has passed the test of time, his adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

The opera, which premiered on May 26, 1953, in Florence, is massive, spanning an epigraph and 13 scenes, often arranged into five acts and featuring over 70 roles.

The opera’s performance history has featured numerous truncations throughout. Prokofiev’s second version is the one performed today, and that was first showcased in Florence. The first ever performance of the entire opera took place on Nov. 8, 1957, in Moscow. In 2010, the original version of the opera was premiered in Glasgow. This version is actually shorter that the final one.

Quick Plot Summary

The opera is split into two parts, Peace and War. The first half focuses on the relationship between Andrei and Natasha, with the object for a number of men including Anatole. Though engaged to Andrei, she agrees to hear Anatole’s declaration of love. However, she finds out that he is in fact married and finds herself in tremendous shame and despair. Pierre, the father of Andrei, promises to try and talk Andrei into forgiving her. News comes of Napoleon invading Russia.

The War section of the opera follows the Russian forces in their attempt to defeat Napoleon. Andrei, wounded, reunites with Natasha. They declare their love for one another and Andrei dies. Eventually, the Russian people celebrate their victory over Napoleon.

Famous Musical Excerpts

The Waltz is perhaps the most famous piece of music from the opera, often performed as a piano solo. The big finale is renowned for in its choral splendor.

But more intimate sections are also quite memorable, particularly the opera’s lyrical opening that features the two lovers Andrei and Natasha pondering their differing situations. The gorgeous melody in the violins underscoring this section, specifically Andrei’s aria, is easily the most seductive in the entire work.

 Famous Interpreters

One name comes to mind when you think of this opera – Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The famed Baritone has been a major proponent of the opera throughout his career, giving the first-ever performance of the work at the Metropolitan Opera in 2002. He even made a case for the opera on Charlie Rose! His Andrei is arguably the most iconic there has ever been.

Another famed interpreter of the opera is Anna Netrebko, who was a prominent Natasha early in her career. She also appeared in the first-ever Met performance of the opera in 2002.

Obviously, Valery Gergiev needs no introduction in the Russian repertoire as he has championed this and many other works from his native country throughout his career.

In a bit of irony, the opera’s most famous recording is an Italian version that features such superstars of the mid-1900s as Franco Corelli as Pierre, Ettore Bastianini as Andrei, Rosanna Carteri as Natasha, Fernando Corena as Balaga, Italo Tajo as Rostov, Fedora Barbieri as Maria, all under the baton of Artur Rodzinski. This cast led the opera in the Florence Premiere in 1953.

Watch or Listen

I will offer up two versions. One directed by Francesca Zambello from the Paris National Opera starring Nathan Gunn as Andrei. It is a complete three-and-a-half hour viewing experience that is a great introduction to the full opera. 

I will also recommend the Florence version mentioned above. While it may be a purist’s nightmare, the opera is sung in Italian, the singing is just incredible throughout the cast.


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