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War and Peace

War and PeaceUntil Saturday night this year's visit by the Mariinsky Opera had consisted only of concert performances, some scenes and excerpts and some complete operas. With the final two performances the company presented the production of Prokofiev's War and Peace directed by Andrei Konchalovsky. The Saturday performance went pretty much as expected, given the sounds of the orchestra and singers from St. Petersburg in the week before. The composer and librettist Mira Mendelson adapted this sprawling, often unwieldy, but unfailingly compelling opera from Tolstoy's novel, whittling it down mostly to a story about Natasha and her various loves and then about the folly of a foreign invader daring to attack Russia. As the composition was carried out in the later years of the Second World War, the war portions of the story, in the second half, became particularly relevant. Prokofiev was never able to get the work past the Stalinist censors, in spite of the addition of some grotesquely heavy-handed nationalist propaganda in the final version, and died without seeing it produced on the stage.

Musically, even over the course of just over four hours (which seemed shorter in both halves than it actually was), it was a beautiful evening, with Valery Gergiev showing why he is the leading conductor of this repertory, shaping the orchestra's narrative to the scope of his singers. The cast varied broadly, although even where vocal strength waned enough dramatic presence remained on the stage to make the characters work, even if the singing and accompanying orchestra were almost inaudible. As expected from their turn together in Eugene Onegin the previous weekend, Alexey Markov was all polish and internal turmoil as Prince Andrei and Ekaterina Semenchuk's sultry presence made you wish that Prokofiev had written more for Hélène. Irina Mataeva was a pretty and flighty Natasha, but without the heft necessary to the part's greatest demands, while Ekaterina Krapivina was an appropriately matched Sonya (although it was odd to see her return later as Marshal Murat's Adjutant and as Matryosha, the gypsy girl who gives up her fur coat to Anatol for his gift to Natasha -- the problem with the necessary evil of multiple casting the small roles).

Among the other larger roles, Irina Bogacheva was having too much fun as Madame Akhrosimova, Natasha and Sonya's imperious godmother, the sort of knowing performance with vocal goods to back it up that comes from a singer who has been around long enough to have been named to the order "For Services to the Fatherland" and a "People's Artist of the Soviet Union." It was once again the tenors who were least pleasing, including Sergei Skorokhodov as a bratty Anatol and the leathery and occasionally cracking Alexei Steblianko as Pierre. Alexander Nikitin had a memorable presence more physical than vocal as Napoleon, and poor Gennady Bezzubenkov had the palest sound as Field Marshall Kutuzov, making his triumphant hymn to Moscow a sotto voce affair. (On a related note, I had never noticed how much the principal theme from James Horner's soundtrack for the movie Glory resembles Kutuzov's Moscow aria.)

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Valiant, if uneven, ode to Tolstoy: Mariinsky offers War and Peace (Washington Post, March 8)

Tim Smith, Mariinsky Theatre wraps up Kennedy Center visit with explosive 'War and Peace' (Baltimore Sun, March 8)

Anthony Tommasini, A Sprawling Novel’s Turn as an Epic Opera: 52 Soloists and 1 Horse (New York Times, December 12, 2007)

---, 'War and Peace' Opens; Mishap Raises Concerns (New York Times, February 16, 2002)
As for the production, it is more sparing and harshly minimalistic than epic. The famous steeply banked mound that covers the stage, its top rotating from time to time (sets designed by George Tsypin), cannot help but make the viewer nervous that a singer (or more likely dancer) will slip and plummet into the orchestra pit (as one actually did when the production debuted at the Met in 2002). It made the dance scenes, filled with Prokofiev's vibrant music, doubly beautiful, the dancers frozen in poses whirled around on the turning stage like figurines on the top of a music box. Actually a lot can be suggested by nothing more than some falling snow, a few hanging windows or door-frames or columns, some smoke, some projections, and some flashing red lights (lighting by James Ingalls). One had to laugh that the obligatory "set applause" moment in the Kennedy Center Opera House came at the opening of the second half, which consisted of a large group of singers standing on what was basically an empty stage.

The costumes (Tatiana Noginova) were colorful and remarkably detailed, especially the many uniforms of the second half. Konchalovsky's stage direction is at times disturbingly heavy-handed, matching the nationalistic fervor of the libretto, something that can make one a little uncomfortable in relation to, for example, the history of someone like Gergiev's politics. No one rode a horse onstage this time, although to have a dwarf dressed as Napoleon cross the stage, point his finger and mock the Russian prisoners, and just as inexplicably leave the stage was a Twin Peaks moment that made no sense in the midst of what is, we are surely meant otherwise to think, a serious and tragic series of events. The Mariinsky Chorus, which had sounded so potent in the concert performances, did not rise to the occasion, perhaps out of exhaustion.

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