The ultimate epic opera

Tolstoy’s War and Peace, arguably the greatest novel in any language, defies improvement. Yet it has been transformed into film, television adaptation… and opera. How could Prokofiev dare to attempt such an impossible task? 

The brilliant, iconoclastic composer of the early years of the Russian revolution had to migrate to the West in order to realise his early operas: the compulsive Gambler based on Dostoyevsky; and the fantastic comic fable Love for three Oranges after Gozzi. The opera he regarded as his masterpiece Fiery Angel never reached the stage in his lifetime. Frustration at that failure may have part- caused his return to his homeland in the 1930s. Soviet citizenship required submission to cultural censorship, but Prokofiev had outgrown his rebellious youth and became increasingly orientated towards a Russian ‘classical heritage’, composing the score for Eisenstein’s epic films about Ivan the Terrible.

Prokofiev’s first, though unfulfilled, Tolstoy project was Resurrection, but, according to Mira Mendelson who was to become his second wife, it was her reading aloud to him War and Peace, in particular the episode in which Natasha Rostova visits the dying Andrey Bolkonsky in the field hospital, which ignited his creative fire. That became the penultimate scene from an initial list of 11 scenes which he chose to set. Surprisingly, two of the most famous scenes in the final version were absent from the first sketch: the ball at which Natasha is introduced to Andrey, with its irresistible waltz reminiscent of Prokofiev’s great ballet scores; and the Council at Fili with its magnificent aria for General Kutuzov, the leader of the Russian army against Napoleon.

The latter insertion, urged by the conductor Samuil Samosud and adapted from a folk-epic melody composed for Ivan the Terrible, betrays the pressure exerted on Prokofiev to enhance the patriotic nature of the War part of the opera at a time when Russia was immersed in another Great Patriotic War during the 1940s. It would be easy to accuse Prokofiev of succumbing to political blackmail to make Kutuzov’s heroism in 1812 a synonym for Stalin’s courageous leadership 130 years later; but, in a fine performance such as that given by Stanislavsky Music Theatre, it is impossible to resist the sincerity and fervour of the Russian defiance in defence of their land, especially when the stage is filled with 300 or more committed performers!

What may at first seem a crude division into 7 scenes of Peace in Part 1 and 6 scenes of War in Part 2 reveals itself in performance as a much more subtle distillation of the central threads of Tolstoy’s epic novel. Inevitably, Tolstoy’s minutely observed detail and profound philosophy are diminished, but it is remarkable how much is retained. The contrast of the old-fashioned Russian aristocratic Rostov household in Scene 3 with the worldly French ambience of Hélène Bezukhov’s salon in Scene 4 of Part 1 prefigures the contrasts between the Russian and French army encampments in Part 2. The shadow of impending war hangs over Part 1 and the news of Napoleon’s invasion provides a stunning curtain to the act. The journey towards enlightenment of the peace-loving intellectual Pierre Bezukhov becomes the philosophical thread which holds together the depiction of war in Part 2. Pierre’s unlikely friendship with the destitute peasant Platon Karatayev on the road to Smolensk becomes the counterpart to the reunion of Natasha with the dying Andrey.

Andrey’s lyrical outpouring beneath the peaceful night sky of the opera’s first scene is a gift to baritones, but it is Natasha who dominates Part 1. Her fresh innocence with her sister Sonya is established from the opening; the enchantment of her first ball, where her shyness melts into the burgeoning of love; her susceptibility to Anatol Kuragin’s seductive flattery; her humiliation at the Bolkonsky household; and still more the yearning sense that she has lost her youth and all that is dearest to her; the long lines of melody which express her conflicting emotions make this role one the most beloved in the soprano’s repertory, comparable to Tatyana in Onegin. 

The fates of Andrey and Natasha become subsidiary to the war effort in Part 2. One marvels instead at the skill with which Prokofiev draws the growing irritation of the cold Napoleon; the different characters of the Russian generals sketched in only a few lines; the devastation of Moscow in flames; the bitter winter of the great retreat. The model is Musorgsky, with his juxtaposition of contrasting scenes. Yet, when you listen to the hauntingly insistent Tolstoyan ‘pi-ti-pi-ti-pi-ti’ of the off-stage chorus, while Natasha begs forgiveness of the dying Andrey, you recognise the unique voice of Prokofiev.