Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Prokofiev and Tolstoy

War and Peace
Composed by Sergei Prokofiev
Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
Conducted by Valery Gergiev
Performances on December 10, 2007-January 3, 2008

The Metropolitan Opera
West 63rd Street and Broadway

Gerello as Napoleon

The finale of War and Peace
Sergei Prokofiev's powerhouse operatic adaptation of Tolstoy's classic War and Peace had its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 2002 and returns in Andrei Konchalovsky’s hit-or-miss production, once again under the reliable baton of conductor Valery Gergiev.

Six seasons ago, War and Peace had two big stars, but neither Anna Netrebko nor Dmitri Hvorostovsky return as the beguiling heroine Natasha and the dashing Prince Andrei with whom she falls in love. Their absence isn’t fatal, since the opera—like Tolstoy’s massive novel—doesn’t need this charismatic couple as its dramatic center, since we move from the first act to the second act with dozens of characters and literally hundreds of extras appearing on this huge canvas to tell the story of Russians fighting back against impossible odds to defeat Napoleon, destroying the emperor’s dream of conquering their homeland.

On the surface, Prokofiev has created a patriotic paean to Mother Russia; since he was also an underrated dramatist, War and Peace works equally well as an exciting, action-filled historical epic with something for everyone: large-scaled battle scenes, political intrigue, and—of course—romance. In essence, the two halves are each a self-contained opera, with the opening “Peace” taking place in the drawing rooms and ballrooms of Moscow prior to Napoleon’s invasion, and “War” showing the czar’s army fighting for the glory of Russia against the enemy hordes.

Prokofiev’s extraordinary score has all his musical qualities in abundance—his endlessly inventive melodies; the lovely and danceable waltzes; the dramatically shattering choruses. The composer’s refusal to make concessions to conventional drama and vocal technique has given War and Peace a label of being difficult to perform, yet the music and the drama go hand in hand: in some ways, Prokofiev’s four-plus hour opera seems the ideal telling of this story, not Tolstoy’s vast, 1000-page novel.

Musically, the Met’s War and Peace is generally impressive—starting with Gergiev’s work in the pit, as this tireless interpreter of Russian opera continuously brings the Met Orchestra and Chorus to new heights of glorious musicmaking throughout. Most spine-tingling is the choral finale, which is unashamedly pro-Soviet (Stalin was still in power when Prokofiev wrote the opera in the 1940s), but also undoubtedly stirring in its bombastic power.

Much of the mostly Russian cast is exceptionally good. As Natasha, Marina Poplavskaya (who shares performances with Irina Mateava) dominates the opera's first part, "Peace," then reappears during "War" only for her beloved Andrei's death scene. She’s occasionally shrill—befitting a young lovestruck woman—but always bittersweetly touching. Alexej Markov has a strong vocal register as Andrei that so far outpaces his creakily wooden acting. Ekaterina Semenchuk invests Natasha’s cousin Sonya with graceful femininity, while Vassily Gerello makes the most of his brief scenes as the emperor Napoleon.

Among the non-Russians, British tenor Kim Begley is a sympathetic Count Bezuhkov, but American bass Samuel Ramey coasts on his formidable physical presence as General Kutuzov, since his voice has become affected by an uncomfortable wobble.

Konchalovsky’s production and George Tsypin’s sets don’t take advantage of the Met’s endless resources and never convincingly recreate early 19th century Russia. The interior scenes and the big battles all take place on a crowned stage that looks uncomfortably steep. It’s obviously not, since the actors dance the waltz and march in formation during the opera, but it’s not a good sign when the only thing people are talking about is the possibility that someone might take a tumble. (At the opera’s December 10 performance, a pillow rolled downstage to a few audible gasps.)

But the director—who’s a veteran moviemaker—does know how to assemble his large cast onstage, including the quite impressive soldiers’ marches in the second act. It’s too bad, though, that the wonderful horse that makes an appearance in battle doesn’t also receive a curtain call along with the rest of a game cast that does its best to give Prokofiev’s masterpiece the proper visual elements it deserves but doesn’t quite receive. Still, Gergiev and company make the case for War and Peace as one of the 20th century’s greatest operas.

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