Wednesday 24 July 2019

War & Peace: Welsh National Opera brings its superb production of Prokofiev's opera to London

Prokofiev: War and Peace - Simon Bailey as Kutuzov - Welsh National Opera (Photo Clive Barda)
Prokofiev: War and Peace - Simon Bailey as Kutuzov - Welsh National Opera (Photo Clive Barda)
Prokofiev War & Peace; Lauren Michelle, Jonathan McGovern, MArk le Brocq, dir: David Pountney, cond: Tomas Hanus; Welsh National Opera at the Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
For all the faults of Prokofiev's huge opera, this performance was a superb company achievement

Prokofiev: War and Peace - Jonathan McGovern as Andrei - Welsh National Opera (Photo Clive Barda)
Prokofiev: War and Peace
Jonathan McGovern as Andrei
Welsh National Opera (Photo Clive Barda)
Prokofiev's opera War and Peace went through so many vicissitudes that creating a definitive version is probably impossible. His final version was created partly in response to the Soviet authorities insistence that the war scenes be stronger and more patriotic, so the creation of an authoritative edition of Prokofiev's original version (which was rejected by the Soviets) is a welcome antidote to the added heroics of the final version.

Katya Ermolaeva and Rita McAllister's new critical edition of Prokofiev's original version of War and Peace forms the basis for Welsh National Opera's new production of the opera. First seen in Cardiff in September 2018, David Pountney's production has travelled to London for two performances (seen 23 July 2019). Tomas Hanus conducted with Jonathan McGovern as Andrei, Lauren Michelle as Natasha, Mark Le Brocq as Pierre and a huge cast with most singers in multiple roles.

Pountney and Hanus have added selected scenes from later versions, notably the New Year's Ball scene, the War Council at Fili and some choral Epigraphs, but the result is to give Prokofiev's score a lightness and variety, there are far more comic moments (usually involving the Russian people) and moments in the production were surprisingly funny. Designer Robert Innes Hopkins has provided a sort of theatre for the set (it looked not unlike Innes Hopkins designs for Ian Bell's In Parenthesis and I did wonder whether the same basic set had been re-used), providing an upper level for performers to look down on the main acting area, and with video and projections to the rear (with filmed sequences from Sergei Bondarchuk's 1966 film of War and Peace), a neat and effective way of changing the scene.

Prokofiev: War and Peace - James Platt as Count Rostov, Lauren Michelle as Natasha- Welsh National Opera (Photo Clive Barda)
Prokofiev: War and Peace
James Platt as Count Rostov, Lauren Michelle as Natasha
Welsh National Opera (Photo Clive Barda)
It was the Russian people that formed the core of the production, with Pountney bringing them all together at the beginning and end, creating a sense that the story was being told by the people themselves. Some costumes hung on the side of the stage, and singers would finish costuming themselves before they entered their role. This provided the connective tissue of the performance, and many of Prokofiev's instrumental interludes, dance scenes and linking passages were transformed into communal activities (with perhaps rather too much 'Dad dancing'). Where this scored was in the comic scenes, which Prokofiev weaves into the piece in this version, the peasants are not always serious and indulge in banter at inappropriate moments.

Part One, 'Peace' was largely lyrical and concentrated on the story of Natasha (Lauren Michelle) and Andrei (Jonathan McGovern), with her seduction by Anatole (Adrian Dwyer) and the intervention by Pierre (Mark Le Brocq), the result was perhaps too gently paced at times and I found myself wishing that we could have had more of the smaller, rather nasty characters such as Helene (Jurgita Adamonyte) and Anatole, Princess Marie Akrossimova and Princess Marya (both Leah-Marian Jones), as they provided spice to what was a lyrical but not always gripping narrative, though I did have a soft spot for James Platt's affable Count Rostov. Michelle made a charming and in many ways appealing Natasha, with Michelle ably shouldering all of the responsibility that the role brings. She held our attention and was engaging, but I have to confess that there were many occasions when I wanted to slap Natasha. Jonathan McGovern's Andrei was sympathetic and highly principaled, though McGovern sang expressively he did not quite bring out the lyric poetry of some of Andrei's solo moments and this Andrei felt a touch prosaic, it was however overall a magnificent achievement.

Prokofiev: War and Peace - David Stout as Dolokhov, Adrian Dwyer as Anatole - Welsh National Opera (Photo Clive Barda)
Prokofiev: War and Peace
David Stout as Dolokhov, Adrian Dwyer as Anatole
Welsh National Opera (Photo Clive Barda)
Part Two, 'War' brought a change of focus, and the drama of the events rather gripped more so that I found this half seemed to have more narrative thrust. The characters from Part One are seen, but only in the context of the wider dramatic events, but there was a wonderfully touching death scene for McGovern and Michelle, and Mark LeBrocq brought out the strange, questioning nature of Pierre's solos. Around these, the drama of war swirled thrillingly, with Simon Bailey and David Stout as Kutuzov and Napoleon, both giving superbly characterful performances. The result of the cast swirled in and out, and part of Pountney's skill was the way he made the scenes flow, articulating detail and letting them dissolve into each other, though the dancing soldiers towards the end were perhaps a mistake.

For all the work's faults, this was a magnificent achievement, one which really brought out the variety and complexity of Prokofiev's work. And it was very much a company achievement with many singers playing multiple roles; Leah-Marian Jones played four characters, Jurgita Adamonyte played three, Adrian Dwyer played six, and so on, with quite a number of the smaller roles being played by members of the WNO Chorus, thus making this a real company piece.

In the pit, Tomas Hanus and the WNO Orchestra matched the fluency of the production, and Hanus pacing of the score was admirable. He and the players really brought out the variety that is present in this production, though for a number of scenes in Part One you felt the influence of Prokofiev's ballet music hovering a bit too closely.

The work was sung in English, in a new translation by Rita McAllister, and whilst the cast's diction ensured that much of this was admirably comprehensible the translation itself did not seem to flow very well and you noticed it for the wrong reasons.

For all the work's faults (and one wishes that Prokofiev had been able to revise it without the Soviet authorities looking over his shoulder), this performance was a magnificent achievement. Far more than any individual details, it was a real company performance with the cast of 22, seven dancers, huge chorus and orchestra all coming together to create something special. Inevitably Tolstoy's novel has had to be cut to the bone to make an opera viable, but as Part Two grasped our attention there was something wonderfully novel-like in the sheer variety and drama of this performance.

Prokofiev: War and Peace - Lauren Michelle as Natasha, Jonathan McGovern as Andrei - Welsh National Opera (Photo Clive Barda)
Prokofiev: War and Peace - Lauren Michelle as Natasha, Jonathan McGovern as Andrei
Welsh National Opera (Photo Clive Barda)
We don't see Prokofiev's War and Peace in London very often, English National Opera's last production is now a dim and distant memory whilst it is some years since the Mariinsky Theatre brought its production. So this evening was not only a welcome chance for Londoners to celebrate WNO's achievements, but for them to appreciate the protean variety that is Prokofiev's opera.

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