Stirring-and Slightly Abbreviated-War and Peace Comes to the Met

Opera-the most problematic of entertainments-is also the art form

most capable of breathing fresh life into a historical episode, a buried myth

or a work of literature through the transforming powers of musical imagination,

theatrical compression and live, flesh-and-blood performance. An unexpected

demonstration of just how potent this alchemy can be took place at the Met on

the opening night of Prokofiev’s War and

Peace , which the company is presenting for the first time.

Near the end of the opera, we found ourselves on the road to

Smolensk in November 1812. Napoleon’s invading forces, having taken Moscow,

were now in retreat across a steeply raked mound of mud-like terrain. A

cinematic snowstorm was raging, and the stage was filled with defeated French

troops. As the music skittered and swirled, one of the Frenchmen, apparently

disoriented, lost his footing and tumbled into the orchestra pit. There was no

scream from a surprised woodwind or horn player, no groan from an injured

supernumerary, and it took the conductor, Valery Gergiev, a couple of seconds

to lower his baton and stop the music. A dozen operagoers who were seated in

the first rows got up and peered curiously into the pit. The performers onstage

stood immobilized. The rest of us sat quietly for some minutes. And then, as

though nothing odd had happened, Mr. Gergiev raised his arms, the music started

up again, and we were back on the road to Smolensk without further thought of

that unfortunate French soldier. (He reappeared at the curtain calls-apparently

unhurt thanks to a safety net-led triumphantly onstage by the Met’s general

manager, Joseph Volpe.)

Prokofiev’s distillation of Tolstoy’s literary masterpiece may be

the most hard-won of operatic masterpieces. For the composer and his

co-librettist (and subsequent wife) Mira Mendelson to compress the 1,500-page

novel, with its minutely detailed crosscurrents between the turbulent love

lives of a handful of St. Petersburg aristocrats and Napoleon’s threat to the

survival of Russia, into a fluid, two-act evening was daunting enough. To do so

at a time when Russia was again under foreign attack-from the Nazi Germans in

1941-and when the composer was under intense pressure to create a work that

would satisfy Stalin’s patriotic paranoia, was asking for trouble. Prokofiev,

who had returned to the Soviet Union in 1936 after years of rootlessness in

America and Europe, was eager to put his prickly modernist tendencies to

simpler, more politically palatable uses. When the Soviet authorities

criticized a first draft for being insufficiently heroic-it had too much

“Peace” in it-he dutifully added yards of vivid poster music to the “War”

section. Getting both halves of the work performed together proved virtually

impossible, and the opera went into Siberian storage after 1948, when the

Kremlin’s cultural ideologues cracked down on anything but the crudest sort of

socialist realism. It wasn’t until two years after Prokofiev’s death in 1953

that the whole work finally reached the stage, albeit in somewhat abbreviated

form.

The Met’s production, which is a co-venture with the Mariinsky

Theatre in St. Petersburg, is also a marginally abbreviated version (it lacks

the banal overture). But with a running time of nearly four and a half hours,

including one intermission, it’s not abbreviated enough. Sympathetic as one is

to the climate of suffering in which the opera was written, the repeated

choruses invoking scared Mother Russia, on top of the scenes of tactical

head-scratching involving the strutting Bonaparte and the indomitable Field

Marshall Kutuzov, begin to feel like a military siege in themselves. And

although Prokofiev’s music is never less than theatrically vibrant (it borrows

thumpingly from his great film score for Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and features, in the

“Peace” section, some of his most beautifully sustained lyrical writing), it

doesn’t shy away from agitprop and goes on for long stretches without providing

anything much in the way of a memorable tune.

The Met, however, has made the most of one of the last century’s

few genuinely stirring operas. The cinematic prowess of the director, Andrei

Konchalovsky, whose Siberiade was one

of the notable epic films of the 70′s, is ideal for an opera structured in 13

self-contained scenes. His stage compositions, whether of stolen exchanges

between Prince Andrei and Natasha, the gaiety and gossip of a St. Petersburg

ball, or a tortured procession of lunatics, have the detailed grandeur of one

of his great film collaborators, Andrei Tarkovsky. Never have I seen the

members of the Met chorus look less like a herd of nobodies and more like a

horde of individuals. The expressive lighting by James F. Ingalls, the splendid

costumes by Tatiana Noginova and a wonderfully versatile set by George

Tsypin-which employs minimal props and a cyclorama on which all kinds of

weather can be projected-are impeccable.

But the real splendor of this War

and Peace is in the performances, led by the preternaturally alert Mr.

Gergiev. In a cast of 69 named characters, everyone had his or her moment.

(“Even the messengers are terrific,” I overheard one woman remark during the

intermission.) As Prince Andrei, Dimitri Hvorostovsky confirmed what I had

suspected while listening to his recent, magnificent Posa in Don Carlo : This glamorous Siberian

baritone has gone beyond being one of opera’s pinup boys to becoming a singing

actor of world-class magnetism. The Russian tenor Gegam Grigorian brought sensitivity

and urgency to the opera’s closest thing to a hero-bumbling, bespectacled Count

Pierre. Especially vivid in the lesser parts were Elena Obraztsova, still

blazing in her early 60′s as Madame Akhrosimova; Vladimir Ognovenko as a

scarily dotty Old Prince Bolkonsky; and Mzia Nioradze, who demonstrated an

astonishingly powerful contralto in the fleeting role of Matryosha. (One of the

biggest ovations of the night went to Samuel Ramey for his preening,

wobbly-voiced Kutuzov.)

Opening night was the occasion of another major Met debut-that of

Anna Netrebko as Natasha. Although she has been a member of the Mariinsky since

1994, this delicately beautiful, slim soprano looked to be little older than a

schoolgirl. With a dancer’s grace of movement (she could give master classes in

fainting) and a voice of surprising power and steely-edged purity, she didn’t

so much play the impetuous, love-struck heroine as inhabit her. She was the

incandescent spark who held the whole outlandish thing together-Audrey Hepburn with

a voice.