Prokofiev’s War and Peace at the Met

But you will also
feel as if you knew each and every one of them ó there is nothing
monochrome or impersonal about the onslaught.

The attempt to make an opera out of Russiaís emblematic epic novel is so
improbable that even in the hands of a genius it was unlikely to be anything
but a succËs díestime. As companies have enlarged their jaws sufficiently
to encompass it, as orchestras and choruses and singers have trained
themselves to handle it, War and Peace has revealed itself as one of
those masterpieces almost too grand for this grandest of art forms: As with
the Ring and Les Troyens (and Khovanschina),
War and Peace reveals itself at every new hearing as full of new
depths, new angles, unplumbed riches. This is an opera that cannot be
undertaken casually, but if a company has the resources to present it, itís
almost a crime not to. That the Kirov, with all its tradition and its
position in Russian culture, should bring it off magnificently is hardly a
surprise; that the opera could be co-produced with the Metropolitan with all
of its very dissimilar resources (though the conductor and many singers and
an increasing number of designers share both stages) and bring itself glory
was by no means a foregone conclusion. The first run, six years ago, was
spectacular; the revival is nothing short of a major triumph, the very
grandest game in town. (And that town, let me remind you, is New York.)

For those new to War and Peace, I advise: read the synopsis
carefully a couple of times (even if you did read the novel twenty years ago,
and remember perfectly well who HÈlËne and Anatol are, and Andreiís rude
old father, and Natashaís foolish, kindly one) but do not pay too close
attention to the subtitles; the text will only distract you from the music
and the acting. The story of Act I has been boiled down to bare essentials:
Russian nobles thinking about love and dances and the various
dissatisfactions of their lives; a young girl accepts a proposal of marriage,
then a proposal of a different kind; her heart breaks but recovers ó like
Russia, sheís tougher than she looks. More interesting than the dialogue is
the variation of orchestral grandeur (for the balls) and intimacy (for
nature, or private reflection) that is going on behind and beneath and all
around it. George Tsypinís setting is the world as a baroque ballroom, with
columns or flats descending to whisk us here or there, never leaving the
globe behind. Then just as we get involved in the quotidian round of petty
existence, a very Russian chorus interrupts: Napoleon has invaded Russia. The
atmosphere changes at a stroke; the mood we have yielded to is shattered.

In Act II, armies march here and armies march there ó Prokofiev composed
these scenes after scoring films for Eisenstein, knowing what audiences now
expected in the way of realism and willing to attempt it in a most
unrealistic medium. Not coincidentally, while he composed, the Germans had
Moscow under siege ó the intended audience knew the experience of war as
modern audiences (especially in the west) do not. There are stretches not
easy to accept, not easy to make sense of: why is this scene here? Why is
there a similar one right after it?

You have to trust Prokofiev ó and also the master of the revels, Valery
Gergiev. Prokofiev knows what heís doing here (he didnít always), and
Gergiev knows the score as perhaps no one else on earth knows it; yield to
their authority and you will feel you have lived through a transformative
experience. And just when the battle scenes and the terrible scenes of what
goes on around the battle reach fever pitch ó the terrorism, the looting,
the ravaging, the brutalization, the untold petty heroisms of ordinary people
ó we reach the grandeur of the burning of Moscow, perhaps the pivotal event
of Russiaís history, at least in its sense of self, at least as
Prokofievís far from disinterested patron Stalin wanted it to be seen.
Then, with no sense of anticlimax but a magnificent consummation, we are in
the bedroom of the dying Andrei, and he and Natasha recollect the earlier
scenes of their love against a fabric, choral and orchestral, that jumps from
the personal to the general moment by moment. Such musical recollections are
a sentimental ìconvenience,î familiar from fifty operas ó but their use
here is anything but sentimental; it is on a par with Tolstoyís mirror for
Russian history in simple, single persons. The orchestration rewards
attention at every spare moment ó the dances recall Prokofievís whirling,
astringent ballet scores, Andreiís death is one of the subtlest bits of
scene-painting of the twentieth century, and there are wonderful new details
to discover with each hearing.

Andrei Konchalovskyís production neglects nothing the opera calls for,
from gypsies at a louche cafÈ to madmen wandering through the cinders of
Moscow to ten ó make that twenty ó or is it forty? ó ladies (and lords)
a-dancing. The tale of putting the whole production together with all its
constituent parts running smoothly would probably furnish a Tolstoy with
enough material for another 800-page novel. The vocal requirements called for
double casting to be sure of getting through the run without undue disaster
ó I heard the Met debuts of two exceptional singing actors, Vasili Ladyuk
as Andrei and Irina Mataeva as Natasha. Ladyuk lacks the easy power
Hvorostovsky brought to the role last time around, but seemed all the more
human, both falling in love and fading away. Mataeva does not radiate ecstasy
in the opening scene as Netrebko did (itís fun, though, today when she is a
fixture of the operatic scene, to remember just how much Netrebko did that,
and what a thrill she was) ó but Mataeva spins a lovely lyric soprano and
portrayed to perfection the adorable, uncertain girl thrilled with her first
ball, with Andreiís attentions and, later, with Anatolís more sensuous
ones, suicidal at her betrayal, then redeeming at Andreiís deathbed. Kim
Begleyís Pierre gathers authority across the evening, as the character does
ó we know these experiences have changed Pierre because his voice expresses
that, and because we feel we have shared them. Samuel Rameyís wobble still
appears to thrill the crowd, but I think a Kutuzov who did not sound
eighty years old could be just as effective. The fifty (is it?) smaller roles
all fit, each significant in its place ó there is less than usual of the
bad Met habit of turning to face the audience rather than the person to whom
one is ìspeaking.î

Gergiev and the battalions supporting him in every department reveal
War and Peace as one of the great achievements of opera, in the
twentieth or any other century. You canít love opera and not want to thrill
to it, and be grateful to Gergiev and the Met for bringing it to you.

John Yohalem

image_description=Leo Tolstoy by Ivan Kramskoi
product_title=Sergei Prokofiev: War and Peace
product_by=Andrei: Vasili Ladyuk; Natasha: Irina Mateva; Pierre: Kim Begley; Anatol: Oleg Balashov; Sonya: Ekaterina Semenchuk; Kutuzov: Samuel Ramey
Production: Andrei Konchalovsky; Set Design: George Tsypin. Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Metropolitan Opera, December 15, 2007