Welsh National Opera 2018-19 Review: War & Peace
A Masterpiece Gets A Rare & Vibrant Showcase In the WestBy Alan Neilson
On his deathbed, Sergei Prokofiev talked of his hope that “War and Peace,” the opera he considered to be his greatest composition for the stage, would eventually become known the world over in its definitive version. In Russia and other Slavic countries this has largely been achieved, but in the West, performances have been rare indeed.
Welsh National Opera’s decision to stage a new production is, therefore, a welcome opportunity to see Prokofiev’s epic work in its final version.
Although Prokofiev had toyed with the idea of transforming Tolstoy’s famous novel into an opera for some time, it was given greater impetus by the German invasion of Russia in 1942. The motherland was once again under attack, the parallels with the French invasion of 1812 obvious. The Soviet government was, therefore, more than happy to encourage the writing of the work. The enormity of such an undertaking takes little imagination, and it is not really surprising that Prokofiev’s finished work barely touches the surface of Tolstoy’s masterpiece.
Prokofiev and his wife, Mira Mendelson, the joint librettists, divided the work into two distinct parts, subdivided into 13 scenes with an opening chorus and epigraph; the first part, set during the peace, introduces the main characters, paints a picture of Moscow’s high society, and focuses on the seduction of Natasha; the second part deals with war, the battle of Borodino, the burning of Moscow and the eventual expulsion and defeat of the French. If viewed on its own merits, rather than as a reduction of Tolstoy’s epic, Prokofiev’s opera is well-constructed, interwoven with numerous themes and well fleshed out characters. However, the division of the work into two distinct parts needs to be handled carefully by the director, otherwise, it is possible that the cohesion between part one, the peace, and part two, the war, can be severely compromised.
Well-Achieved, But With Technical Difficulties
For this production, however, there were no such problems. The director, David Pountney, created a traditional reading, successfully connecting the two parts of the work, as well as ensuring that an engaging momentum was maintained throughout the evening.
The scenographer, Robert Innes Hopkins, created a single set which was used to unite both parts of the work; the stage was framed by wooden paneling, in an elliptical arc, which dipped towards the middle. Doors at the side allowed for ease of entrance and exit. The large cast filled the open space in front, as well as standing above the wooden frame, along with the back of the stage. Props were kept to a minimum. The only variation occurred during the more intimate scenes, when the side of a house, constructed in the same wooden design, was lowered onto the stage.
The use of computerized video projections onto the back wall provided a meaningful context from which to engage with the drama; the audience was exposed to the bloody realities of war, the magnificent opulence of Russian high society and so on. Unfortunately, the projection broke down for the final 30 minutes, and the power of the staging consequently suffered. Nevertheless, up to that point, the effect was excellent.
The costumes, designed by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, were drawn from all the strata of Russian society, creating a colorful panoply of national costumes. There were Cossacks and priests, peasants and soldiers. There were refined ballroom dresses, military dress tunics, and servants’ livery. The whole of Russia was present. In chorus scenes, of which there are many, the crowded stage was awash with color. The overall effect was to create mise-en-scene which were truly spectacular.
Questions to Answer
There are, however, a couple of issues which any director must address. Firstly, this was a work which was undoubtedly embraced by the Soviet government for its potential as propaganda, not just as an aid in defending the motherland against German aggression, but also as a means in promoting communism. Pountney dealt with this issue by meeting the challenge head-on; he introduced contemporarily dressed soldiers, both men and women, into the scenes, which generated a wider context, and gave more meaning to the flag waving and patriotic choruses, as well as introducing placard waving peasants demanding bread. The scenes, therefore, suggestively merged 1812 and 1941, Tsarist Russia and Soviet Russia. Furthermore, throughout the scenes set in Moscow’s high society, Pountney had peasants or apparatchiks watch on, either leaning over the wooden walls or seated around the side, interestedly observing the unreal world of the capitalist oppressors. The propaganda, therefore, became acceptable within the context of socialist realism.
The second issue, however, was not dealt with so successfully. In a couple of scenes, Prokofiev introduced a comedic element, which obviously has to be treated carefully. In scene eight, the German generals are mocked by the Russians generals, obviously so, as they are now the enemy, but in 1812 they were allies. Pountney, however, takes this too far and turns the scene into slapstick comedy, jarring sharply with the spirit of the work. On the other hand, Monsieur De Beausset, was portrayed as an effete Frenchman, frightened of his own shadow, and was superbly essayed by Joe Roche. It was funny, but also believable.
Musically, this was a first-rate production. The orchestra, soloists and chorus all combined to produce a powerful performance of Prokofiev’s masterpiece. However, given that there are approximately 70 solo parts, it is impossible to make reference to all of them, even if many singers undertook multiple roles.
The role of Natasha Rostov was taken by the splendid American soprano, and Cardiff Singer of the World prize winner, Lauren Michelle. She produced a sparkling performance, convincingly naïve and willful in the first part, sensitively compassionate and steadfast in the second. Throughout the evening she sang with consistent excellence, successfully highlighting her changing emotional state in a wonderfully expressive performance.
Michelle possesses a bright soprano, capable of producing piercing high notes, yet able to insert a variety of colors. The voice was always strong and secure, displaying a considerable degree of flexibility, climbing up the scale without any vocal impairment, taking in leaps with apparent ease, and exhibiting a pleasing legato.
In scene one Natasha and her cousin, Sonya, sing of the beauty of the night; her voice was imbued with a lyrical freedom which successfully brought out its inherent beauty. The mezzo-soprano, Samantha Price, played the role of Sonya, and made a strong impression.
In scene six, the confrontation between Maria Akhrossimova and Natasha, was powerfully delivered, Michelle’s voice becoming increasingly taught, her vocal line disintegrating as her stress intensified. Leah-Marian Jones playing Akhrossimova provided the perfect adversary, matching Michelle’s rising anxiety, with her own increasingly aggressive admonishments.
In scene 13, Andrei is finally reconciled, on his deathbed, with Natasha: Michelle’s sensitive and mournful singing, tinged with happiness, was beautifully delivered. It was an all-round excellent performance.
A Complex Dreamer
Mark Le Brocq played the role of Pierre Bezoukhov. It is a difficult role to essay convincingly, for he is a complex character, searching for a meaning to his life, exhibiting warmth and kind-heartedness, yet at the same time many human failings. He is a dreamer and often socially ill at ease. In many ways, he is an outsider trying to make sense of his relationship with the world.
Le Brocq, nevertheless, produced a compelling portrait which captured the multi-layered nature of the character; he was at times aggressive and decisive, for example in dealing with Anatole, and at other times a fantasist, conjuring up ideas to assassinate Napoleon. Sometimes he is socially awkward, even isolated, such as when he tries to join with the common Russian soldiers to fight the French. His acting was always carefully crafted to reflect the situation.
He backed this up with an impressive singing performance, which was both energetic and expressive, his phrasing intelligently measured to highlight the many contrasts within his character. Apart from the intrusive vibrato that compromised his singing occasionally, it was a splendid presentation.
Jonathan McGovern, playing Prince Andrei Bolkonski, opens up the first scene with his aria “A radiant spring sky…” in which he sings about the illusion of love and happiness, just before he sees Natasha for the first time. McGovern made an immediate impact, the warm timbre of his voice imbuing the aria with a melancholic air.
He portrayed Andrei as an upstanding, thoughtful, ardent suitor, deeply in love. His phrasing was beautifully formed, inflected with an array of colors and subtle accents. In scene 12, he lay dying, when Natasha suddenly arrives. In an expressive exchange, both McGovern and Michelle brought a heart-rendering depth to Andrei and Natasha’s final moments together, in which the changing orchestral textures wonderfully mirror their joy, love, and eventual pain.
Simon Bailey produced fabulously detailed portrayal of General Kutozov, who under orders from the Soviet authorities had had his role enlarged, in order to make him a cipher for Stalin, the father of the people. Of course, in doing so they went against Tolstoy’s view of history, and Communist ideology. Nevertheless, Bailey was superb in the role. His Kutuzov was a one-eyed long-haired eccentric, who hobbled around with the aid of a stick, whose natural authority was unquestionable. He has a warm agile bass-baritone, sings with precision, clearly articulates his words, and phrases with care and intelligence. It was a dominant, magnetic, and powerful performance.
Jurgita Adamonyte portrayed the amoral Helene, unloving wife of Pierre, and sister of the equally amoral Anatole, who is interested only in her own hedonistic lifestyle of parties, affairs and scheming. Pountney even has her involved in a casual incestuous affair with her brother. Adamonyte played the part wonderfully, her warmly colored mezzo-soprano enveloping her words with a rich seductive quality.
Adrain Dwyer played the deceptive cad, Anatole, so successfully that when, near the end of the opera, it is heard that he has lost a leg during the war it is impossible to feel any sympathy. Dressed like the proverbial peacock, he strutted around the stage, highly impressed by his own appearance. Dwyer’s light tenor added little gravitas to the character, and was therefore perfect for the role. The fact that at times, it became a little reedy in the upper register added to the characterization. Overall, however, it was a pleasing performance, in which Dwyer sang with technical skill and energy.
Jonathan May gave a marvelous rendition of the miserable Old Bolkonsky, feigning a pronounced wobble to the voice to accentuate his age. Count Rostov, played by James Platt, was convincingly aware of his inferior social position when dealing with Count Bolkonsky. He possesses a strong solid bass, with a pleasing tone. The baritone David Stout made an excellent impression in the roles of Napoleon, Denisov, Dolokhov, and Raevsky, giving expressive and well-drawn portraits of the characters, underpinned by the beautiful timbre of his voice.
The WNO Orchestra, conducted by Tomas Hanus, was in scintillating form. Playing with rhythmic and dynamic power, Hanus managed to create a deeply emotional reading of the score, in which Prokofiev’s wonderful orchestration was brought fully alive. The balance between the orchestral sections was managed with great skill, from which he elicited excellent playing from all its sections. The sound was lively, fresh and beautifully articulated, the textures of the score sensitively explored. Always alive to the dramatic dynamics on stage, Hanus produced a detailed reading; bold and thrusting during the patriotic choruses, seductive and lyrical during the scenes for involving Natasha and Andrey.
The chorus, under the direction of the chorus master Stephen Harris, sang with energy and vibrancy. It was possible to sense the genuine connection they had with the work. Dynamics were wonderfully moderated, climaxes were at times spine-tingling. They attacked their lines with passion and belief.
This was an excellent production of a work that is performed far too infrequently. Despite a certain degree of heavy-handedness, with regard to the dramatic impact of the chorus, this is a well-constructed opera with much to offer. Although almost every single member of the team, from the soloists to the lighting engineer made an excellent impression, the real star of the evening was Sergei Prokofiev; the score is a masterpiece.