Several comments on yesterday’s Met Opera broadcast of Prokofiev’s War and Peace:
For those who don’t know the opera, it consists of an epigraph and thirteen reasonably lengthy scenes divided into two gargantuan segments, “peace”, and then “war” based on Tolstoy’s novel. The “peace” segment vitally draws the personalities and ambitions and situations of the principal characters with consummate skill and sympathy, thus making their various fates in the “war” segment deeply involving for the listener. The piece is patriotic, but movingly so; neither obnoxious in the Soviet style nor witlessly jingoistic. Stylistically, the piece inhabits a similar world as the ballet Romeo and Juliet and the music for the film (also turned into a cantata) Alexander Nevsky. In fact, if you don’t know the opera, you might imagine a sort of cross between those works; eloquent dance elements as well as massive and powerful episodes..and like those works, a serious mein, but leavened with considerable humor. And the libretto, by Prokofiev and his wife, Mira, is a winner…combining grandeur and intimacy. Also, the piece is consistently inspired from beginning to end, there are no longeurs…to yesterday’s broadcast:
1. The conductor Valery Gergiev proves once again how important the conductor is…his mastery of the score is immediately evident, and his (relatively) quick pacing and control of tempo, the breadth and unity of conception, the precision of the colors evoked by this onamonapoetic score, and the immense variety of his articulations serve the work well, to say the least.
2. But why the cuts? Oh, I know that everybody but Rostropovich in that Erato record of his makes cuts, and as far as it goes, several performances I’ve heard cut a lot more. But I have the score, and as I followed the performance I can assure you that the music left on the table is not just perfectly viable, but as inspired as the rest. And I’ve heard it uncut, and liked it that way. But Gergiev knows what he’s doing, obviously…there are probably sufficient reasons for the cuts, which in any case were not particularly heavy…You know, I feel the same way about cuts in Frau Ohne Schatten; it’s just about always cut, and when I heard Solti do it from Salzburg uncut, I liked it that way. Guess I just don’t like cuts, I almost always feel cheated. Erich Leinsdorf in one of his books completely dismisses objections to cuts, and claims they are absolutely necessary in many works to make the piece stronger. I just can’t think of any cuts I like in any works I like. Cut away in pieces I don’t like, however; be my guest!
2. If the Met had made this one of their big whoop-de-doos at movie theatres, it would have sold out everywhere and been one of the events of the year. Why didn’t they?
3. Alexej Markov as Andrei and Maria Poplovskaya as Natasha were superlative; especially because their acting and vocal characterizations were so convincing. And it’s nice to have such an Andrei, powerful and charismatic; makes the lyrical stuff all the more moving. The outstanding Kim Begley was wonderful as Pierre, but you might not notice it, ‘cause Pierre is such a difficult role. Sam Ramey as Kutuzov has a beautiful voice and plenty of power, but the wobbling continues to be a significant distraction. A friend I listened with thought it wrecked his passages. I thought so too, but am not saying so because I’ll get yelled at! But Ramey’s place as a great singer of our time is secure, he’s done so many good things.
4. This greatest of Prokofiev’s works contains his single greatest passage, the desperately sad death scene of Andrei… his farewell to the beloved walls of the Kremlin and his hallucinatory reunion with Natasha will shock you with its poignancy… how can this beautiful world continue to exist without Andrei to see it? “The world ends when you die.” This is haunting.
Recommended Recordings and DVDs of Prokofiev’s War and Peace:
- Prokofiev - War and Peace / Bertini, Gunn, Kit, Mamsirova, Gouriakova, Brubaker, Paris Opera
Gary Bertini conducting this Paris production, directed by Francesca Zembello. An interesting featurette delves into the extra care Zembello took depicting Napoleon to a Parisian audience, and her emphasis on the symbolism of dance in Russian culture. Nathan Gunn looks and sounds beautiful as Prince Andrei, but his Russian diction is quite distracting.
- Prokofiev - War and Peace / Gergiev, Othotnikov, Kirov Opera
DVD from the Kirov in the early 90s.
- Sergei Prokofiev: War And Peace
Gergiev’s audio CD.
- Prokofiev: War and Peace (Guerre & Paix)
Conducted by Rostropovich, complete with no cuts, with Galina Vishnevskaya (Natasha). Also a late-career opera recording by the inestimable Nicolai Gedda as the would-be seducer, Anatole Kuragin.
- Prokofiev: War & Peace
Richard Hickox, conducting at Spoleto. Confession: this item is missing from the Gibbons music library!