Sunday, October 19, 2008

War and Peace (review of COC production)

Tolstoy spent six years writing the novel War and Peace, followed by ten years releasing revised editions. Prokofiev spent 17 years writing the opera based on the novel.

Both the novel and the opera were shaped by political repression. Tolstoy wanted to set the novel in the 1825 Decembrist uprising against the czars, but would not have been able to publish in the Romanov era (he wrote the novel in the 1860s) and so changed the setting several times, finally settling on Napoleon's invasion of Russia in the early years of the 19th century.

Prokofiev was commissioned to write an opera based on War and Peace by the Soviet Committee on Arts Affairs, and then he was dogged by them for 17 years to make it suit their ideological requirements. Started in 1941 - a couple of months before the German invasion of Russia - it was originally to be a patriotic call to arms. After the war the committee added other purposes: a glorification of peasants, denunciation of decadent Russian royalty, and paean to the motherland. The committee nitpicked over individual notes. They wanted less conversation and characterization, and more declamation on patriotic themes. One argument over three measures (a few seconds of music) lasted three weeks. Prokofiev initially put up a fight, but increasingly ill health and political pressure caused him to give in.

It wasn't just the committee that picked at Prokofiev's masterpiece. When he tried to mount the opera the conductors who took it on required numerous modifications. Such were the presures of the Stalinist era that an unsuccessful opening could doom a career, and one conductor threatened to call in sick on opening night if certain changes weren't made. The sublimely beautiful death scene of Prince Andrei, backed by an offstage chorus providing music that evokes his feverish state, was thus almost cut because someone thought the audience would find the use of nonsense words unintentionally funny.

The current COC production of War and Peace is a reprise of the recent English National Opera production, and it works. The casting of the main characters couldn't have been better. Russell Braun is the ideal Prince Andrei. His lyric baritone, sensitive phrasing and strong good looks make him an ideal doomed romantic lead. His death scene was everything that opera should be; in the language of Tolstoy's "What is Art", Braun's performance caused an "emotional infection to spontaneously occur in the listener."

Elena Semenova as Natasha and Mikhail Agafonov as Pierre were also perfect. But for me, the chorus stole the show. Not in the initial epigraph - while they sang it well, that piece of music just doesn't work for me. The dissonance in the music and the overuse of percussion ends up sounding like a tinny broadcast to my ears. But after that, War and Peace has sublime choral music, especially for the men, and it couldn't have been performed more perfectly.

The orchestra, under guest conductor Johannes Debus, sounded better than I've heard it since, well, Bradshaw. Here's hoping Debus will join us on a permanent basis. In case he does, here's how he pronounces his name (I attended a symposium he was at on Saturday): Yoh-HAHN-us DAY-boose.

The strength of the ENO production is in the second half, which depicts war. The backdrops and costumes were so evocative in the second half that I was simultaneously on the edge of my seat and on the edge of tears. When Pierre is rescued from his French captors the Russian partisans rise from the snow banks in white capes and slit the throats of the French. I felt I was "there" in a way I seldom do in movies.

It helps to have read the book, as the opera is more a montage of scenes than a reproduction of the plot. Prokofiev and librettist Mira Mendelson do a better job capturing the war part of the book than the peace (peace, in this sense, means romance). This might be explained by the limitations of reproducing a 1,400-page novel and the distortions caused by numerous rewrites, but it might also have been due to the difference in circumstances between Tolstoy and Prokofiev when each worked on their version. Tolstoy wrote the novel while living in comfort on his estate, marrying the love of his life and then raising his family. In the first years that he worked on the opera, Prokofiev was also starting a new and lasting relationship (with librettist Mira Mendelson), but they were evacuees, moving from city to city while the German invasion grew, worrying over his children who stayed behind in Moscow.


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