Thursday, 15 November 2018

Soviet touches can’t dent Tolstoy and Prokofiev’s triumph

Soviet touches can’t dent Tolstoy and Prokofiev’s triumph

War and Peace | New Theatre Oxford | Saturday, October 13

WELSH National Opera’s production of Prokofiev’s epic War and Peace in Oxford, was a triumph.

The director, David Pountney, has achieved a masterpiece with pace, intensity, visual spectaculars and occasional references to Prokofiev’s and Tolstoy’s lives. All of which provide a rich backdrop for the stunning singing and wonderful orchestra.

The huge cast of characters entered the stage while the masterful conductor, Tomáš Hanus, waited and then wham, we were into this exhilarating music and high intricate drama.

The music was loud, excitingly discordant, alerting us to the personal anguish of characters in peace as well as the horror that was to befall Russia.

The first and final choruses celebrating Mother Russia, which were probably inserted under Soviet instructions, were emotional, melodic and deeply patriotic.

The finale was sung amid a forest of flags on stage and projected onto the back of the stage where the occasional tinge of red was a reminder of the time the opera was written, 1941-6.

In act one, Peace, the drama sweeps through the domestic liaisons and hinted debauchery of wealthy aristocrats.

Act two presents the violence and cruelty of War as the imaginative staging takes us from ballroom to battlefield.

The portrayal of war was greatly aided by projecting scenes from Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1966 film onto the back of the stage just in front of which was a permanent semi-circular higher tier, a sort of viewing balcony, which contributed to the sense of a story being observed as it unfolds.

This is a love story as well as a story of national pride and war. Although ostensibly about the failed French invasion of Russia in 1812, Prokofiev was composing this as the Germans were preparing to invade Russia.

Here then is one of the themes, the ever presence of the enemy without and the need to defend Russia whatever the cost.

Peasants, as well as aristocrats, are dramatically important not only in the defence of Moscow but also to Pierre’s philosophical development.

The dramatic, passionate music swirls along, loud clashes conveying Pierre’s mental anguish (excellently portrayed by Mark Le Brocq) and the hideous consequences of war but there are also beautiful lyrical stretches, both characteristic of Prokofiev’s music.

The love duet between the charming Natasha (Lauren Michelle) and Andrei (Jonathan McGovern) is sung with great tenderness as the strings quietly shimmer.

This is an outstanding production by a truly excellent company. A triumph indeed.

Susan Edwards

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