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Soap and Stalin

10/27/2001 -  and 1, 3, 6, 9, 15, 17, 22, 24, 28 November
Sergei Prokofiev: War and peace
Sandra Zeltzer (Natasha), Graeme Danby (Count Rostov/Tikhon), Stephanie Marshall (Sonya), Andrew Shore (Denisov/General Raevsky), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Mme Akrosimova), Simon Keenlyside (Andrei), Rebecca de Pont Davies (Princess Bolonskaya/French actress), Gwynne Howell (Prince Bolonsky/General Bennigsen), John Daszak (Pierre), Susan Parry (Hélène), John Graham-Hall (Anatole/Lunatic), Gerard O'Connor (Dolokhov/Marshal Davout/General Belliard), Ryland Davies (Host/M de Beausset), Melodie Waddingham (Maid), Barry Martin (Valet/Captain Ramballe), Iain Paterson (Balaga/General Yermolov/German General), Susanna Tudor-Thomas (Matriosha), Alison Roddy (Dunyasha), Henry Walker (Gavrila), Mark Richardson (Métivier/German General/Marshal Berthier/French officer), Peter Kerr (Abbé), Willard White (Kutuzov), Richard Roberts (General Barclay de Tolly/Platon Karataev), Andrew Rees (General Konovitsyn/Fyodor), Murray Kimmins (ACD to Kutuzov), Ann Gall (Mavra Kusminincha), Geraint Hylton (Ivanov), Paul Hodges (Lunatic), Peter Sidhom (Napoleon), Stephen Allen (Lieutenant Bonnet/ADC to Compans), Riccardo Simonetti (French officer), Richard Mitchell (ADC to Napoleon), Jacqueline Varsey (ADC to Murat), Philip Ball (ADC to Prince Eugène), Helen Field (French actress)

ENO orchestra and chorus

Paul Daniel (conductor), Tim Albery (director)

The ENO's new production of War and peace is inevitably compared both with the company's British premiere production in 1972 and with the Kirov's cinematic extravaganza two years ago. The opera itself is no longer a novelty, and the ENO isn't as exotic as the Kirov. But, in a low-key way, the production works, largely thanks to the ENO's remarkable ensemble and orchestra.

War and peace is of course an opera of two halves, one an aristocratic soap carved out of a much more complex novel and the other a toe-curlingly simple-minded hagiography of Stalin at war. The two are linked by the practical, intellectual and moral involvement of Andrei and Pierre. Shorn of most of his speech, though, and all inner monologues, Andrei especially becomes a bare token in the war part, until his dying vision of Natasha, which itself seems schematic. Pierre bumbles around both worlds ineffectually, an unlikely focus for an opera with epic aspirations.

Tim Albery ingeniously unites the two parts by the simple device of beginning with the Epigraph, the hymn of the Russian people, set in 1941, when Prokofiev's opera first took its final shape. The 1941 Russians serve as sceneshifters and observers during the whole performance, providing a persistent reminder both of the ideas about class implicit in Prokofiev's perspective and of the unknown ordinary people who suffer in every war. A photograph of a bombed building on the front curtain looks more recent than 1941, perhaps suggesting Chechnya and a broader view of Russia at war, or war in general. Although this production must have been planned many months ago, it raises difficult questions about means and ends, and suffering and compassion, that are strikingly relevant in today's extremely different kind of war.

The sets and general approach of the production have a kind of wartime austerity about them. The single set has a low floor that serves as all the interiors in the first part and is partly dismantled or covered in something rough for the battlefields. Most scenes are lit in sepia, even the ball, hinting at a faded past, in contrast to the strong black-and-white contrasts of conventional twentieth century war photography. There is little real spectacle, in strong contrast to the Kirov's images of Kutuzov and Napoleon bestriding the globe. The dances at the ball express ennui rather than grandeur, and everything is perhaps a bit too dreary. The individual performers and the chorus have to provide all the substance within a very sketchy, though strongly suggestive, framework.

Fortunately, almost all of the roles (great and small) were superbly filled. The young French soprano Sandra Zeltzer was a charming, definitely teenage, Natasha. Her voice wasn't always sweet, and she reflected Natasha's passion and confusion rather than her vulnerability. Simon Keenlyside as Andrei was outstanding, vocally forceful but controlled, cryptic and charismatic, but always sympathetic and altogether far more interesting than the character's words and music suggest, especially in the second part. John Daszak seemed more insecure as Pierre than the character justified, at least in the first part, though he gained presence and vocal confidence towards the end. Willard White tried to dodder as Kutuzov (Stalin's proxy), and delivered his music heroically. He was well matched by Peter Sidhom as an almost tragic Napoleon, battle with a sudden change of fortune. The smaller roles were often luxuriously cast, but everyone was highly effective.

The ENO chorus did not sound remotely Russian, but sang powerfully and movingly. Paul Daniel and the orchestra kept the music vivid and dramatic, and made it sound more substantive than it probably is.

H.E. Elsom



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