War and Peace

Sergei Prokofiev
Welsh National Opera
Birmingham Hippodrome

The novel War and Peace is famous not only for it’s literary prowess, but also for it’s length. Prokofiev and his wife Mira Mendelson (acting as joint librettist) manage to pack the tale into three and half hours onstage, but in truth each half could be a standalone opera. Luckily, the pacing is superb and the epic character of the novel is maintained.

I could write my own literary tome extolling the virtues of this WNO touring production. Their War and Peace is another fantastic David Pountney tour de force. He directs Rita McAllister’s excellent new edition and translation, completed in 2010 after she spent two years with unprecedented access to the composer's original manuscripts. She then concocted this “de-Sovietised” version of the operatic masterpiece written as Prokofiev intended before needing to appease Stalin.

Tolstoy’s novel is distilled as peace in the first half and war in the second. Musically, each half is suitably distinct: the former littered with dance music and lyrical duets, the latter populated by ferocious chorus writing and appropriately dense orchestration.

Pountney’s staging is dramatically engaging. He boldly directs a show with high production values and extremely slick delivery. From ballerinas to battalions, the physical language is interestingly choreographed throughout.

A simple yet attractive wood-panelled set is enhanced by video projections (taken from Bundarchuk’s 1966 film of War and Peace) across the back of stage. This cleverly circumvents a regular problem with theatrical stagings of war: guns onstage are disappointing as they are rarely fired. Instead, we can see the battle raging across the back whilst onstage the aftermath plays out. Battered and bruised men rally to the fight whilst bent double with fatigue and famine.

Conductor Tomáš Hanus delivers an emotional reading of the score, with the orchestral texture well-balanced. Amongst the rich sonority of Prokoviev’s score, it is possible to pick out each instrument. The excellent playing is matched by a formidable chorus, who have their work cut out in the second half delivering the many nationalistic calls to arms.

Jonathan McGovern’s (Prince Andrei Bolkonski) warm timbre infuses his well-sculpted lyrical lines. He crafts an upstanding character, yet a hopeless romantic, in love with Natasha (Lauren Michelle). Michelle displayes a free lyric tone with a great deal of flexibilty to explore the emotional range of her character.

Mark Le Brocq plays Pierre Bezoukhov, a complex character as he displays warmth and compassion yet suffers from many personal failings. La Brocq’s stature gives him the physical presence to believably intimidate the scoundrel Anatole (Adrian Dwyer) yet his physique doesn’t stop him from showing a beautiful vulnerability.

Adrian Dwyer’s duplicitous Anatole makes a great contrast to the lyric roles of Bolkonski and Bezoukhov and another highlight is Simon Bailey’s detailed General Kutuzov.

The orchestra, soloists and chorus combine to give a powerful, passionate performance of this rarely seen opera. Prokofiev has written a masterpiece and War and Peace deserves a regular spot in the operatic repertoire.

Louise Lewis