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No mere boom

Royal Opera House
07/10/2000 -  and 11, 14, 15 July 2000
Sergei Prokofiev War and peace
Vladimir Moroz (Andrei Bolonsky), Anna Netrebko (Natasha), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Sonya), Larissa Shevchenko (Maria Akhrossimova), Sergei Alexashkin (Count Ilya Rostov), Alexie Steblianko (Pierre), Olga Savova (Hélène), Oleg Balashov (Anatol), Zlata Bulycheva (Maria Bolonskaya), Fyodor Kuznetsov (Prince Nikolai Bolonsky), Edem Umerov (Denisov), Mikhail Peternko (Tikhon), Viktor Chernomertsov (Matvyev), Gennady Bezzubenkov (Kutuzov), Fyodor Moshaev (Bonaparte)
Chorus and orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre
Valery Gergiev (conductor), Andrei Konchalovsky (director)

The Kirov Opera's summer season at Covent Garden has shown that it is one of the world's great companies, with the emphasis on company. A reconstruction of the original Mazeppa production was visually gorgeous (flapping scenery and all) and musically overwhelming, a feast of great Russian voices in a drama of impossible love, virulent revenge and madness, even with the putative second cast. But then Mazeppa would be close to a being perfect opera if it weren't so grim.

On the other hand, Semyon Kotko, Prokofiev's 1940 Soviet opera, here getting its UK première, is a sympathetic hair's breath from Madame Mao's "Red detachment of women". Starting out as an operettaish village romance, it shifts suddenly via a disturbing mad scene to a relentless depiction of the brutal suppression of Ukrainian partisans by the Germans in 1918. (Ironically, the Germans were still in an alliance with the Soviet Union when Kotko was written -- it was Stalin who had been massacring Ukrainian peasants.) Yet the production, set in a landscape of crashed engines and ripped up railway lines in perhaps deliberately contrasting style to Mazeppa, was still a stunning ensemble achievement. Well defined characters took their place memorably in a progression of scenes held together by often cinematically expressive music.

Prokofiev's War and Peace, written during and immediately after the war, looks back in its first part (peace, more or less, the story of Natasha and Andrei) to Onegin and verismo, with dances and young lovers in trouble, and in its war-based second part to Gudunov and Verdian nationalism, with endless patriotic choruses and a clear-eyed general tragically facing an overwheening tyrant with the loyal support of his people.  But it too has a kind of cinematic structure of short, often intimate, scenes, and, even, similarities with King Vidor's film of ten years later. (An incidental, but highly rewarding, similarity in this production is the resemblance of Anna Netrebko as Natasha to Audrey Hepburn.) The division into two parts, sharply contrasted and each a film's worth, also recalls Ivan the terrible. A forty minute interval between the two parts might have been necessary for set changes, but suggested delusions of Glyndebourne.

George Tsypin's economical, though possibly not cheap, set provided an epic setting, a circular floor apparently mirroring a coffered ceiling, with cracks, for the first part with its balls and domestic scenes. The circle turned for the second part into a flattened earth-covered dome, which Napoleon stood on like the globe, that at times cracked open. Andrei Konchalovsky worked with pools of light for the close-up scenes, wonderfully in Andrei's first encounter with Natasha, and filled the stage with blocks of chorus and dancers fraying into humanity at the edges for the public scenes. Andrei and Natasha's last meeting took place on the edge of the fully lit circle, now covered in mud, temporarily empty of the armies and about to be tramped over again, exposing the significance of their love as the proverbial hill of beans.

Once again, the ensemble and the orchestra triumphed. The first night cast included very few singers familiar outside St Petersburg, probably only Anna Netrebko, who has studied in San Francisco. The main singers were certainly right for their parts. Netrebko seemed to be pushing too hard in the opening scenes, but she was heart-breaking at Andrei's death. Vladimir Moroz was a lyrical, suitably elegaic Andrei, dashing and expressive, and Alexei Steblianko was an understated but moving Pierre, with more than a touch of the Gremins in his love for Natasha. Gennady Bezzubenkov as Khutusov sounded elderly but heroic, plausibly carrying the weight of his country's fate in the second part, while Fyodor Mozhaev sang Napoleon in a beautiful, hard-edged voice.

But the vast number of smaller roles -- society ladies and generals as well as Andrei's batty father and uptight sister -- were all individually characterized and sung. Perhaps only Oleg Balashov as Anatol lacked the necessary character. The chorus, mainly in massive tableaux, were often overwhelmingly intense in the patriotic choruses of the second part, particularly the one after Moscow is abandoned. The orchestra played with focussed excitement, that perhaps made the music sound more substantial than it is. You could say that Prokofiev's War and Peace, and this production in particular, is essentially a theatrical work with music rather than an opera. But with those terrific voices pouring out music and emotion, the distinction is irrelevant.

H.E. Elsom



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