Prokofiev’s War and Peace 

Metropolitan Opera, New York

Performance of 18 February ‘02

Brought to you in SuperVision by Mark Burstein


   When I heard that the Met was presenting their first-ever production ever of War and Peace, [1] that was inducement enough to travel to the recently-bitten Big Apple, [2] as I, along with hundreds of others, had been initiated into SuperWorld through our monumental ’91 production. [3] That one was memorable for many things: the Super March up Franklin Street, the U.S. debut of a young conductor named Gergiev (which began our long-standing relationship with the Mariinsky [Kirov] Opera), the Russian cast’s reaction to the real-life anti-Gorbachev putsch which was occurring simultaneously, “Natasha Rostrova” (Ann Panagulias)’s nightly arrival on a bicycle and the immortal, albeit unintentional, one-liner from director Jerome Savary. [4] In that SFO production, supers were completely banned from the house when not onstage, and we only got to see the orchestra tech rehearsal, so never got a real sense of the opera, creating a lingering lacuna on my personal “life-list”.

   Now, add to that the promise of a luminous cast including Anna Netrebko, Sam Ramey, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the journey was inevitable. I asked for “best available” seats and was “rewarded” with a pair of superb Parterre Center box seats, albeit at a hefty price. [5] Oh, was it worth it!

   Let me first get something out of the way. If one had nothing but reports from the New York Times to go on, one would believe that this opera was not about Natasha Rostova’s fall from innocence, but super Simon Deonarian’s more literal tumble into the orchestra pit on opening night, causing the opera to come to a complete halt for four or five minutes just before the ending. Actually, he fell into a net (invisible to the audience), scrambled backstage, and was later rewarded with an onstage solo bow with general director Joseph Volpe. The opera was halted due to Gergiev’s concern with the violinist whom Simon had fallen upon, breaking his bow. This incident was enough to “merit” a notice in the Metro section on Friday, and the first twelve paragraphs of the next day’s review. Deserving of a Hammy™ in absentia to be sure. However, in a subsequent report, Simon was fired because closer inspection of the in-house video inferred that he might have done it on purpose, in which case we retract the Hammy™. Since when did coach’s challenges and instant replay become part of SuperWorld?

   The articles focused on the possible dangers of the giant dome that served as the stage floor – indeed large and highly raked, but I’ve seen a lot more dangerous (e.g. our ’95 Faust, the Bayreuth Ring in 1999, also set on a globe). The surface was smooth (a trompe l’oeil tessellation like a coffered ceiling in the first act; a ravaged warground in the second). Parts of it also retracted (revealing a prison), elevated (for Napoleonic posing), and rotated (adding enchantment to the ballroom scene).

   Now include a cast of 350 (68 singing rôles, 120 choristers, 227 supers including many children, a horse, a goat, a dog, a chicken, and a midget Napoleon). As Humpty Dumpty said, “There’s glory for you.”

    OK, while I’m off track and reviewing the scenery I should tell you that this was a multimedia production (George Tsypin, set design), with moving architectural elements (such as a wall with a burning fire in the fireplace or a tower with Natasha and Sonya giggling on the balcony) suspended by cables and coming in and leaving from above. All very minimalistic. There were no curtains between sets, nor curtain calls at the end of the first act. Rear-screen projection and scrims were used, which provided a supremely dramatic rendering of the burning of Moscow and the great triumphal Meistersinger-esque final stage picture.

   Period costumes (over a thousand!) were quite authentic looking, although the number of “Napoleon” hats in the Russian army was disconcerting. I think the only thing out of place was in the ballroom scene, where giant glowing neon-plastic “space-age bachelor pad” columns served as the décor. The battle-scenes among the snows were stunning (I suppose ours were too, from the house).

   The only screwup in the performance I saw was as the peasants marched in victory, signaling the climactic raising of a 30’ tall bright red cloth Imperial Russian Double-Headed Eagle. Unfortunately, one side of it got tangled and it ended up looking like a kind of demented and angry half-chicken.

     But what about the OPERA???

    This is an opera with everything stacked up against it. Tolstoy HATED opera – in fact, set the pivotal scene in the novel where Natasha is seduced by Anatol deliberately in the “counterfeit” and degenerate world of an opera production, which he mercilessly satirized; [6] the enormity of the source material; the wartime conditions under which it was written (Prokofiev himself having to flee Moscow in a literal recreation of the plot); the endless revisions to fit into the Socialist Realism of Stalin’s All-Union Committee on Arts Affairs; the enormous amount of bombast and repetition and “Glorious Sons of the Fatherland” foo; the fact that it is two completely separate dramas with different central characters; the enormity of the casting, and length of the performance.

    It is also an “opera” in thirteen “lyrico-dramatic” scenes, requiring thirteen sets, and is more a series of vignettes than a drama having an actual plot. [7] It also boasts a most unusual unfolding developmental structure – more like the Eames film “Powers of Ten” [8] than a linear narrative. From the opening miniature in the garden with just three characters, through the unfolding of their lives and society up into the historical sweep of epic battles and from there to universal themes.

    Did it work?


   Gergiev was in his element, especially in the second act (“War”) where the pomp and pompousness of the Odes to Mother Russia were in full flower. The orchestra played superbly, although his tempos in the more intimate scenes could have been a bit more lingering.

   Anna Netrebko (Natasha Rostrova) was incandescent perfection in her official Met debut [9] in a rôle which could have been written for her, and which she, according to this month’s Opera News in which she appears in a languorous Playboy-esque foldout (fully clothed), has always wanted to sing. She was by turns charmingly girlish, numinous, sublime, and deeply affecting, her natural dark-toned meltingly clear soprano filling the house. Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Prince Andrei Bolkonsky), although a touch harsh vocally in the opening scenes, was her ideal complement (as he was in “The Tsar’s Bride” at SFO a few seasons back. He’s dashingly handsome, charismatic, Siberian, with a wonderfully musical and potent baritone voice, and was profoundly moving. Their final “piti”-ful duet of tragic forgiveness was utterly unforgettable. Russian operas, as we all know, tend to give the baritones the romantic leads, and relegate tenors to the Wacky Neighbor or Best Friend or Bad Guy rôles, the reverse of Italian opera.   

   Sam Ramey was magnificent, with the burnishings of a long career reflected in his portrayal of the frail and aging, but ultimately triumphant, Field Marshall Kutusov – introspective and emotional in the “council chamber” scene, a firebrand in the grand choral apotheosis. Far be it from me to review the other sixty-some singers, but the other standouts in the cast were Gegam Grigorian as Pierre Bezukhov, her mentor and, although not mentioned in the opera, eventual husband. [10] Victoria Livengood was a bit long in the tooth for Hélène, the belle of Moscow, [11] but the most outstanding singer with whom I was not familiar was the wily seducer, Prince Anatol Kuragin (Oleg Balashov), whose creamy, luxuriant tenor was all-too-briefly in service. One of the dramaturgical weaknesses of the opera is the seemingly instantaneous and unexplained defection of Natasha from her fiancé to this sleazeball, but Oleg’s portrayal helped to make the case, at least vocally. More, please! Other familiar faces included Gary Rideout, Vladimir Ognovenko, Claudia Waite, and Nikolai Gassiev.

      The ballet was used extensively and quite well. And supers were all over the place indulging in every kind of super-foo imaginable – marching (many actually in step), fighting, posing, waving flags, opening doors, carrying candelabras, acrobatically tumbling, flailing across the stage as bald-headed loonies, and so on, as well as children, nekkid girls, and the aforementioned midget Napoleon. And Simon Deonarian, Super-Star. Some of the more prominent supers actually got billed in the program (Tsar Alexander I, the French Actresses, etc.)

     Particular favorite memories include the lovely opening trio, the dancing at the ball, the second act opening tableau involving Napoleon astride his horse and hundreds of soldiers, the magnificent stagings of the battles in the snow and the burning of Moscow, and the exquisitely poignant reconciliation between the dying Andrei and the penitent Natasha.

    I was not too impressed by the audience, however. It was up to my wife Llisa, radiant in a gold strapless gown, to single-handedly provide most of the Old-Time Monday Night Glamour, though there were a few nice shmatas in the plastic-surgery wing (the Parterre), and we thought we saw David Hockney. The audience seemed ill-at-ease with an unfamiliar work, and were less than enthusiastic in their applause. Like some of the ruder members of our audience, there was a storming of the doors at the end.

   This Met production will be broadcast on radio on March 2nd. Also check out the Kirov video!

   The evening may have been quite long, but at least it wasn’t “War and Peace”. Well, actually…

[1] Indeed, only their second Prokofiev ever, after last year’s The Gambler. Tsk. SFO is so far ahead!

[2] There is an eerie symmetry about the opera’s theme being the sudden murderous attack on Russia by Napoleon; it being composed during the unexpected Nazi Wehrmacht on Moscow, shattering their nonaggression pact; and this production taking place so shortly after the horrific events of September 11th.

[3] during the centennial year of Prokofiev’s birth. Interestingly and ironically, he died on the same day as Stalin, March 5th, 1953

[4] An unfulfillable stage direction to the men involving an, er, exhibition of elation (ask anyone who was there)

[5] $570 a pair + the requisite bribe

[6] the scene of Natasha’s moral downfall is set during the performance of an opera, a pastiche of recognizable bits of “Lucia di Lammermoor”, “Il Trovatore” and other operas popular in Tolstoy’s — not Natasha’s — time. “Natasha,” Tolstoy wrote, “saw only the painted cardboard and the oddly dressed men and women who moved, spoke and sang so strangely in that brilliant light. She knew what it all was supposed to represent, but it was so blatantly false and unnatural that she felt alternately ashamed for the actors and amused by them.” Yet she is eventually engulfed, and Anatol can move in on the hypnotized beauty and claim her. Prokofiev changed the seduction scene to a ballroom.

[7] Of course, Prokofiev could assume great familiarity with the source material and the language in his Russian audience; a luxury we Westerners do not share.

[8] Wherein the camera sees a simple picnic on the grass and pulls back and back and back until galaxies are revealed and then pulls in and in and in to see the atomic realms.

[9] She had appeared previously on the Met stage as part of the 1998 Kirov Festival

[10] He also Pierre in the Kirov video and CD.

[11] Begging comparison with the divine Elena Zaremba in ours