Prokofiev’s War and Peace at the WNO

Prokofiev’s War and Peace is not the masterpiece which it could have been. Relative to the Tolstoy original, the first half focuses too much on Natasha, while the second, because of the need to placate Stalin’s regime, contains too much patriotic bluster. Add to this the length of the work and the demands which it makes of an opera company’s resources, and its neglect becomes comprehensible. Yet, for all that, it contains much powerful music theatre and the predominantly lyrical score, while not in the composer’s most original style, is finely attuned to the characters and their predicament, with the orchestral colours and thematic material enhancing the drama. The opera is certainly well worth reviving and the Welsh National Opera is to be commended on its current run of performances.

It serves as a major testimony to the achievements of David Pountney before he relinquishes the artistic directorship of the company next year. True, for those of us who have, over the years, admired the sharp-edged, often daring, interpretations he has brought to bear on the opera repertoire, his staging was perhaps surprisingly traditional. Yet it was also highly effective, not least in its resolute adherence to narrative. The key interplay between the characters took place at the centre of a mostly bare stage with videos or a backdrop in the rear setting the scene, and between them, sometimes in small groups, sometimes amassed in vigorous stylised movements, the peasants, the aristocrats, the soldiers offered their reactions to what was going on. This created an excellent balance between the intimacy of personal encounters and the broader issues of society and war.

The decision to give the work in an English translation was a disappointment because one missed the authentic sound of the Russian language. But it was also understandable: the company could not have afforded to import a significant number of singers from Eastern Europe and training all the home forces to master the libretto in the original would have been a major undertaking. In any event, there was no lack of conviction in the fervent singing of the enhanced chorus; nor among the strong team of soloists. While, in Jonathan McGovern’s performance, the character of Andrei remained somewhat unfocussed until his beautifully played death scene, those of Pierre and Natasha were communicated through fully rounded, three-dimensional portrayals by Mark Le Brocq and Lauren Michelle, respectively. His plangent tenor served well the self-doubting, introspective moods; her fresh, pearly soprano was an ideal instrument for naive exuberance. There was doubling, trebling, even quadrupling among the many other roles, but strong characterisation, without descending into caricature, was in this production a virtue of even the smallest parts.

Notwithstanding the obstacle of language, the performance felt very Russian, and for that conductor Tomáš Hanus must take the principal credit. It was clearly music for which he has particular affinity.