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War and Peace, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff — four-hour epic with thrilling vocals

War and Peace, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff — four-hour epic with thrilling vocals

September 18
04:35 2018

Though the initial idea of turning Tolstoy’s vast novel into an opera came to Prokofiev as early as 1935, it would not be until the period of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 that he first set pen to paper.

With its obvious parallels to the dire circumstances in which the country quickly found itself, the developing piece grew ever more important as a potential encouragement to his fellow citizens and — equally vitally — a work with which to celebrate Stalin’s leadership and consolidate Prokofiev’s own position within the Soviet artistic hierarchy.

But progress and official approval were slow, and while the enormous score received a concert performance at the Bolshoy in 1945, it was not until 1959 that it received a complete stage production. By then, Prokofiev and Stalin had both been dead for six years, having died on the same day.

David Pountney will leave the post of Welsh National Opera’s artistic director at the end of the season just beginning, and this production is representative of his ambitions for the company: four hours in length, and making use of an expanded chorus and orchestra, plus an army of principals, some of them taking on half a dozen small parts each, it stretches resources to their limits.

Welsh National Opera’s production of ‘War and Peace’ at the Millennium Centre, Cardiff © Clive Barda

Dramatically, several of the numerous individual scenes need sharper definition while, over the long evening, vocal standards are uneven, and for once the work of music director Tomáš Hanus could do with keener momentum.

A major element of Robert Innes Hopkins’s set is borrowed from his 2016 staging of Iain Bell’s In Parenthesis. Its tendency is to cramp the action, while the frequent projection of footage from Sergei Bondarchuk’s no-expense-spared 1966-67 film of the novel inevitably makes the onstage activity look meagre.

But the choral singing is thrilling and individual performances convey the essence of the central characters, even if in some instances without the requisite vocal weight or security.

Jonathan McGovern’s Andrei is stiff but determined, Lauren Michelle’s Natasha painfully naive, Mark Le Brocq’s Pierre constantly in a moral quandary. The best hits home; but like Prokofiev’s episodic opera itself, the achievement is intermittent.


To September 29, then touring until November 24,

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