Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Director: Irkin Gabitov
Prince Andrei Bolkonsky: Alexey Markov
Natasha Rostova: Irina Mataeva
Prince Anatol Kuragin: Sergei Skorokhodov
Princess Maria Bolkonskaya: Zlata Bulycheva
Count Pierre Bezukhov: Alexei Steblianko
I put reading "War and Peace" on the list of my New Year's resolutions for a couple of years, and every time quickly gave up. I bought the book though, which I guess would be the first step, and it has been staring down at me from my upper shelf, the one I never reach to, ever since. I am therefore not any kind of authority to speak of it, but I had heard enough about the scope and density of the work to eagerly look forward to watching an abridged but apparently still relevant live version of it (involving, after all, Prokofiev, Gergiev and The Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra) whose running time is about four hours, cut by only one 45-minute intermission. The massive revolving set weighing 30 tons and costing 2 million to ship, not to mention the truly epic nature of the production right in line with Tolstoy's mammoth novel, had made headline news in New York even before it got here so the tickets sold briskly from Day 1 and the visiting Russian artists eventually got to perform in front of sold-out audiences both Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
The production was evenly cut into two parts that could not be more distinct. The first half focuses on convoluted relationships and easily belongs to the most traditional opera style. The heroine is young and lovely, she falls for the good guy, then she falls for the bad guy, then she wants to die, all of this drama prettily unfolding on an aristocratic background including countryside retreats and fancy balls. The second part opens on a striking but after all quite simple tableau of Napoleon standing tall surrounded by his kneeling soldiers ready to shoot. This was the perfect introduction to most of the second act, which concentrated on the historical circumstances of the novel, namely the French General's foolish attempt to subdue Russia, with powerful battle scenes and rousing patriotic choruses to boot.
This combination of personal and societal turmoils was well-served by the various singers. Irina Mataeva had the right amount of innocence and spunk to convey Natasha's misguided behaviour and her singing, while not transcendental, was clear and very pleasant. As Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Alexey Markov effortlessly exuded a gentle charm that was all the more reinforced by his strong and attractive, if not mesmerizing, voice. The rest of the cast proved to be up to par as well, but Alexei Steblianko deserved special praise for his powerful turn as all too human Count Pierre Bezukhov. Completely absent before intermission, the Mariinsky chorus kept busy during most of the war-related scenes, steadily churning out rousing peans to Mother Russia with boundless intensity.
The unifying element of all this agitation was of course Prokofiev's unrolling score and maestro Gergiev's well-known stamina was put to good use again while he was manning it all. Beautifully lyrical in the most intimate moments and proudly reaching for the sky when stirring patriotic feelings, the music never ceased to be part of the action without overtaking it. Yes, some hymns were so blatantly populist that they were bordering cheesy propaganda, but the sheer power of the music and the unstoppable fervor of the chorus made us root for them anyway. Clearly relishing every minute of it, Mariinsky Artistic and General Director Valery Gergiev made sure to bring out the best of his obviously committed, if occasionally a touch weary, artists.
And what about the famous revolving set then? After all was said and done, it frankly looked a bit underwhelming, probably because a lot of the scenes are rightfully minimalist, but it did allow for some fluid movements within a single frame. Sometimes it does take a lot to make things appear effortless, and at least it did not overly distract us from the on-going story. Some images were simply but beautifully evocative, such as Moscow's burning symbolized by its glistening red skyline, others a bit off, like the columns occasionnally descending from above and never quite touching the ground in Act 1.
But overall it all worked out very well, even if things dragged on a bit in the second part. After making multiple revisions to the score to please the Kremlin, to no avail, Prokofiev eventually died without having had the opportunity to see the production on stage. Luckily for us, the Mariinsky Theater rose up to the challenge and magisterially succeeded, and in more ways than one. I am considering plunging into the novel... again.