The UK’s current relationship with Russia is at a knife’s edge, though (in all fairness) it has felt like this off and on for years. Though we may struggle with the Russia of now, we have yet to waive our commitment toward their weighty artistic offerings.
Welsh National Opera – War & Peace
Wales Millennium Centre
Saturday 15th September 2018
Few have met this standard than our Welsh National Opera (the Russian Ambassador being an honorary patron for this staging). The Russian operas in their repertoire have included new productions of Mazepa and Khovanchina, with a popular revival of Eugene Onegin. Perhaps it was all leading to War and Peace, a crowing achievement in 20th century opera. WNO have also proven their chops with large scale work at the Millennium Centre with their versions of Don Carlos, Lohengrin and William Tell.
Prokofiev tackled Tolstoy’s novel with a great force. Even this four hour epic opera still heavily reduces the story and only focuses highlights of the plot. The beauty of War and Peace lies in its duality between the personal and the formal, joy and horror, love and longing. The pomp of the battlefield is matched with stirring scenes of balls and initiate mansion settings. Whilst Stalin (amongst others) would have have had their hands on the score, Prokofiev whips up a frenzied account of the French invasion in Russia, within the second part of the evening, considered too dense by some to not be performed proper a few years after the composer’s death. The Nazis invading Russia would make for perfect propaganda and what better vehicle than that of this sprawling account of the Motherland defending herself?
You get the feeling that WNO have wanted to do this for some time, as the opening has been a show stopping moment in their Chorus!, a night of ensemble highlights. This moment reached its zenith with this performance as the chorus stagger around the stage and blast right at us a few minutes being on stage. With no applause for conductor Tomáš Hanus, this jolt into the show makes for a great moment of surprising theatre. Dame Anne Evans recently said how this opening to the opera is such an extraordinary moment. She is not far wrong.
Further recycling is the set taken from Ian Bell’s In Parenthesis, another war landscape of a Welsh chapel, here used again with little change in colour, though the trap door remains a pleasant feature. The scene with Andrei on his death bed, also harks back to Richard Jones’ staging of The Queen of Spades, another award winning Russian outing from WNO. The bird’s eye view of the death bed is an instant reminder of Herman’s restless night aside the skeletal remains of the total character. Through the dark wooden feature here, most would likely have not been visible for everyone in the auditorium. This tender moment between Andrei and Natasha is the last we see of them in the opera and sums up their sporadic and tempestuous love life together, consummated in death.
The score is a bolstering mix of Russian melodies, harsh harmonies and striking ensemble moments. I’ll confess, Prokofiev usually wows me with one hair-raising passage of music (proven in his ballets Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet) though it never reached this plateau for me. There are some brutal extracts (look no further than the aforementioned opening), juxtaposed with the grace and elegance within the first part. The mighty forces of the large orchestra and huge chorus are what make the opera extra special, through the Russian composer’s well known spiky nature, and uncompromising assaults, more battle music would have been welcome. Cinephiles can also rejoice with footage from Sergei Bondarchuk’s humongous film version of War and Peace, a frequent backdrop behind the curved balcony on stage during the second part. The lavishly costumed balls aside, a handful of dancers were underused in only one odd moment in the show, handling guns and stomping about. The addition of a final choral number after the curtain called wreaked of further authority meddling with the image of the composer at gunpoint (an exaggeration, only to an extent).
Whilst there are over 500 characters in the book (with over 200 historical characters), there might not be as many here but there is a long roll call. Several of the cast play multiple roles (some having 5 parts) and within this English translation making it more accessible through this, we get an absorbing decent into romantic love triangles and frantic battles. There are too many performers and character names to feature in a review, but all involved did a bang up job in bringing this operatic bombardment to life. Lauren Michelle brings Natasha to life here with a resplendence and force. Though we don’t see much of her in the second half, the first half is very much her’s as here story of multiple princes courting her leads to abuse and sorrow. Andrei, her love is her played by a powerful Jonathan McGovern, whose tragic end comes in wounds from battle and an embrace from his beloved for one last time.
Hats off to Marc Le Brocq, a familiar face with WNO as Pierre, certainly the most human and relatable character of them all. He brings such a deeply rooted sense for the role that we go along with his long journey, his tribulations all on record within the pages and the score. One of Adrian Dwyer’s roles is the horrid Anatole, who plots to have Natasha all for himself, when she is really just another conquest for him. Played with an arrogant charm and devilish with, he hate the part all the more of his awful actions, along with the scene with Pierre being tense highlights. In all four of his parts, David Stout makes for the perfect Napoleon. Within this one scene with the “Emperor” we get a fly on the wall view of his mixed feelings on the invasion and realisation that it just might not work out. Stout brings vigorous clout to whatever he plays. Always a pleasure to see him back in Cardiff.
With what might be David Poutney’s final production for WNO, this War and Peace is the must see experience this fall.
An opera of epic proportions, powerfully portrayed.
War & Peace continues at the Wales Millennium Centre till 29th September, with performances of La Traviata and La Cenerentola. Then on tour.
Weeping Tudor Productions present Bernstein Bash! At St Edward’s Church, Cardiff on Saturday 1st December 2018. Join us for songs from West Side Story, Candide and other shows. Expect recital songs and also stimulating piano piece. Join us for the rumble! Book here:
Photo Credit: Clive Barda