Battle Weary

Till Death Do Us Part: Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Anna Netrebko in War and Peace.Photo: Beatriz Schiller

Considering the heated hype that preceded the Met’s new production of War and Peace – Prokofiev’s heroic attempt to make a viable opera from Tolstoy’s epic novel – an anticlimax of sorts was probably inevitable. And indeed, the promised spectacle and technical marvels, said to be the most imposing ever in Met history, looked fairly tepid, although the Battle of Borodino, the burning of Moscow, the French winter retreat, the elaborate ballroom scenes, and a detailed cross section of Russian society between 1809 and 1812 were at least duly suggested and tastefully realized. No doubt that master of Met magnificence, Franco Zeffirelli, would have sniffed condescendingly at George Tsypin’s minimalist sets and Andrei Konchalovsky’s rather plain direction. As for the audience, the first sign of real excitement on opening night came near the end, when a confused French soldier lost his balance on the hazardous dome-shaped stage and fell into the violin section.

More important than all that, though, is the fact that Prokofiev’s unwieldy, uneven, yet continually fascinating masterpiece has finally been staged by the Met. The opera occupied the composer for the last twelve years of his life and only reached the West shortly after his death in 1953, in an abbreviated version at the Florence May Festival with Franco Corelli as an unlikely Pierre Bezhukov. Since then, War and Peace has gradually entered the international repertory and has been seen everywhere – even at the Met, thanks to visits by the Bolshoi and English National Opera.

And the more one hears and sees it, the better it gets. The first half, dealing with the relationship between Prince Andrei and Natasha and the events leading up to war, is Prokofiev at his most lyrical and characterful, while in part two even the high-level battle din and poster-art patriotism are at least invigorating. Natasha’s music is especially irresistible, at first as innocent and fresh as the spring evening during which Andrei falls in love with her, later intensifying into twisting pathos through her affair with Anatol to her attempted suicide, and finally reaching a mature stability at Andrei’s deathbed as the two characteristic themes meet in the orchestra and softly intertwine.

Both roles are in the best hands. Even if Anna Netrebko’s lovely lyrical soprano is a bit too light for Natasha, she sings exquisitely and looks charming, while Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s elegant baritone and introspective romantic manner are perfect for the idealistic Andrei. The moving scene of their reunion and Andrei’s death is the highlight of the evening, as well as Prokofiev at his most inspired. There are 68 other solo roles listed in the program, divided among Met regulars and Russian-speaking guests, and the only real disappointment for me was Samuel Ramey’s undistinguished Field Marshal Kutuzov, dramatically a cipher and sung with a bad wobble. More surprising was that Valery Gergiev, conducting a score that seemed right down his alley, had such tentative control over the orchestra.

Aside from its unnerving disaster-waiting-to-happen appearance, Tsypin’s domed stage and cyclorama background are just old hat. Wieland Wagner staged his first Bayreuth Ring cycle in exactly the same arrangement 50 years ago, and with a good deal more ingenuity and imagination – and no one ever fell into the orchestra pit. The cast is huge, of course, but even so, Konchalovsky might have worked harder to put more interesting and detailed characters onstage.

The Met’s War and Peace is hardly the triumph everyone hoped for. There’s actually a lot more to enjoy in the Kirov’s earlier production, directed by Graham Vick, if you can locate that hard-to-find Phillips video.

War and Peace
The opera by Prokofiev, conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Metropolitan Opera.

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