by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 4, 2002.
To make an opera out of "War and Peace" seems like a conceptual mistake. Tolstoy's novel is, among other things, an assault on the great-man theory of history, dismantling the illusions of individuals and exposing the nameless, anarchistic energies that drive life forward. Napoleon's reputation has never quite recovered from the novel's Battle of Borodino scenes, in which the Emperor is made out to be neither magnificent nor malignant but simply irrelevant. This is not how opera sees the world. Opera is an art of grand personalities, of illusion and exaggeration. Our vision of musical history is the great-man theory in excelsis: the canonical composers look down at us like the heroes of Valhalla. It is no surprise that Tolstoy parodied opera alongside Freemasonry as one of the chief idiocies of high society, and praised folk song as the only truly authentic music. But what is "War and Peace" if not a self-consciously great and difficult work? Readers would not bother with it unless they believed in advance that its author was a generalissimo of the written word.
If a "War and Peace" opera had to be done, Sergei Prokofiev must have seemed the wrong person to do it. He had made his name with the "Scythian Suite" and the "Classical" Symphony, with machine-age rhythms and satirical pastiches. But there was an unexpected earnestness behind the urbane façade; Prokofiev, no less than Shostakovich, wished to map his country's destiny in sound. An exile in America and in Paris throughout the early Bolshevik years, he returned to Russia in 1936, and wrote the first version of "War and Peace" during the Second World War. He revised it in the late forties and early fifties, during the period of the 1948 Zhdanov Decree, which attacked obscurantist tendencies in the music of leading Soviet composers. The fact that Prokofiev had padded his opera with patriotic choruses failed to impress the authorities, who went out of their way to humiliate him. He died in 1953, having never heard his masterpiece complete.
And a masterpiece it is: Prokofiev made a successful stab at an impossible job. The note of detachment in his style—the everlasting icy grace—approximated Tolstoy's magisterial narrative voice, which always had a caustic undertow. Prokofiev's inability to dramatize his inner life in the manner of Shostakovich may have made him the lesser of the two in the symphonic arena, but it stood him in good stead in the more objective realm of "War and Peace." His ability to pick up the tempo of wildly disparate scenes, which he honed through his film work with Sergei Eisenstein, allowed him to address the entire sweep of the novel, from ballroom to battlefield. The first part of the opera centers on young Natasha Rostova, the pure-hearted but woefully unfocussed daughter of an impoverished landowning family, who falls in love with the Hamlet-like Prince Andrei and then with the scoundrel Kuragin. The second part tells of the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon's occupation of Moscow, and the subsequent winter retreat; the nightmare of history becomes a backdrop for the second meeting of Natasha and Andrei and for their tragic reconciliation.
Admittedly, the score has some dry patches. The bombastic newsreel music accompanying Marshal Kutuzov's patriotic monologues is an all-too-blatant attempt to comply with Stalinist aesthetics. (Scene 10, in which Kutuzov discusses battle tactics with his generals, could easily be dropped altogether.) Infinitely more gripping is the music given to Natasha, who sings an endless melody of wayward beauty. The ballroom dances and salon tunes of Part I have a glorious lilt and carry with them an undercurrent of emotional unease. In the first few minutes of the opera, all the faded beauty of the Rostov household fills the air. It occurred to me, as Prokofiev's off-kilter waltz themes revolved in the orchestra, that the opera is like Ravel's "La Valse" stretched out on an enormous canvas: here, too, a golden age is spinning fitfully into oblivion. "Valse! Valse! Valse! Mesdames!" shouts the Host of the Ball, over a sinister vamp in the bass. This is Tolstoy to the core: a mirage of splendor, the pistons of history churning in the background.
The Met's "War and Peace" is a truly awesome thing—the most visually compelling opera production that I have seen in New York in many years. A co-venture with the Maryinsky Theatre, in St. Petersburg, it was directed by the filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky, with sets by George Tsypin, costumes by Tatiana Noginova, and lighting by James Ingalls. The team's strongest work comes in Part II, at precisely the moments when Prokofiev's inspiration flags. The succession of scenes around the burning of Moscow—religious madmen in a sadomasochistic procession, a dreamlike skyline aglow with flame, Napoleon reviewing the chaos on his white steed, the chorus marching forward with torches in their hands—echoes some of the great tours de force of the Russian cinema, such as the sacking of Vladimir Cathedral in Tarkovsky's "Andrei Rublev," a film which Konchalovsky worked on in his youth.
The aristocratic settings in Part I, however, are a shade too precious and fantastic—they don't smack of the real. The vertiginous downward curve of the stage floor gives the ballroom scenes an overwrought surreal quality. We get the point, early and often— the world is changing, the world is changing. But there are magical details throughout, and many of them take on a deeper significance toward the end. Ingalls should have taken a solo bow for the lighting: with the help of Elaine McCarthy's projections, he creates the illusion of ever-changing weather, of storms gathering and of sun breaking through clouds. The entire production is a swirl of meaningful motion in which nothing feels tacked on for effect. Tolstoy's critique of Napoleon comes to life in a single image: the Emperor is last seen rushing through the snow in a motley crowd, his role in the drama reduced to a walk-on part.
Valery Gergiev was the conductor, winning another battle in his worldwide campaign to install Prokofiev in the front rank of opera composers. He brought with him scores of fine Russian singers from the Maryinsky, many of whom were making their Met débuts. The most important was Anna Netrebko, a young lyric soprano with a pearly, gleaming tone, who projected her voice effortlessly into the house. She embodied the role of Natasha so sparklingly that it was impossible to imagine anyone else singing it. Her partner in glamour was Dmitri Hvorostovsky, as Andrei; his silver hair and golden baritone have long been admired, but his acting has taken on new gravitas in recent years. As he staggered out of his deathbed to dance a final waltz with Natasha, I doubt that I was the only one on the brink of tears.
The cast was huge—sixty-eight roles in all—and I can list only some favorites. Gegam Grigorian made good use of his rugged tenor in the role of Pierre Bezukhov; he caught Pierre's nobility and kindness and also his disorientation and rage. Elena Obraztsova personified the old aristocracy in a few room-shaking mezzo tones. Ekaterina Semenchuk sang gorgeously as Natasha's cousin Sonya. Victoria Livengood found an edgy expressiveness in the awful Hélène Bezukhova. Oleg Balashov, a robust-voiced tenor, gave a charming veneer to the equally awful Kuragin. Vladimir Ognovenko commanded the room for a minute or two as the impossible old Prince Bolkonsky. Samuel Ramey, as Kutuzov, sounded underpowered on the wide-open stage, but he exuded a wise old fighter's dignity. Nikolai Gassiev delivered a vibrant sketch of Platon Karatayev, the ultimate Tolstoy peasant. And Vassily Gerello made a powerful caricature out of Napoleon. (Be forewarned: one or two sections of the opera feel as long as this paragraph.)
Gergiev, who made his American début with "War and Peace," in 1991, in San Francisco, showed an unerring grasp of the architecture of the score. Those who think of him as a brutish conductor should listen to his delicate shaping of the lyric scenes, particularly Andrei's death. The Met orchestra played as if it had lived with the music for years. The chorus sang lustily and acted with commitment. Even the extras had an air of dire purpose; there was none of the usual half-hearted milling around.
I did not witness the production's notorious opening-night mishap, in which one of the extras tumbled into the orchestra. If, as the Met administration darkly hinted, this was a bid to cause mischief or attract attention, it succeeded; for a day or two, the episode seemed to get more space in the Times than Enron. A friend suggested that the Met should respond by hiring an overacting warden. On the second night, there were no signs of impending catastrophe, and the only story worth reporting was that the Met had brought about a marvel of opera staging.
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