War and Peace, superb visuals and orchestra dwarf an insipid cast

By Raymond Beegle
Published: 12/5/2007

It might interest our readers to know that Count Leo Tolstoy hated opera. In the novel War and Peace he gives himself the opportunity to ridicule the form and its audience as he writes about Natasha Rostova sitting in her box.: “ Natasha could not follow the opera, nor even the music; she looked upon the painted cardboard and the queerly dressed men and women who moved, spoke, and sang so strangely in that brilliant light. She knew what it was all meant to represent, but it was so pretentiously false and unnatural, that she first felt ashamed for the actors, and then amused by them.” “She looked at the faces of the audience… which seemed attentive to what was happening on stage, and expressed delight which, to Natasha, seemed feigned.”  In his essay What is Art? Tolstoy attacks opera from both a moral and artistic standpoint,  observing that singers open their mouths in unnatural ways, wear absurd costumes to cover their often peculiar bodies, and cut very poor capers as actors in an attempt to entertain the idle rich, giving them an opportunity to flaunt their wealth and pretensions to culture. Tolstoy also hated patriotism: “Patriotism cannot be good. Why do not people say that egoism might be good? For this might more easily be maintained as to egoism which is a natural and inborn feeling, than to patriotism, which is an unnatural feeling, artificially grafted on man.”

 Photo credit: Mary Sohl, the Metropolitan Opera

Photo credit: Mary Sohl, the Metropolitan Opera

One cannot help but wonder in light of this, that Prokofiev created the opera War and Peace which inevitably included all of the trappings Tolstoy ridiculed, superimposing as well, a grandiose patriotic tone which is absent in the novel.  Its thirteen hundred and some pages are divided by the composer into thirteen scenes, which highlight some of the main actions of the book and cannot help but compress the carefully drawn characters into standard operatic clichés. In the opening scene, for example, Prince Andrew sings of his heart being reawakened. This event appears a third of the way into the novel, after the death of his wife while giving birth to their son, and after his many soul struggles over the meaning of life and death – that is to say - after a great sympathy is developed on the part of the reader for his complex and vulnerable nature. With all these factors considered, and notwithstanding its being a child bearing little resemblance to the parent, the opera War and Peace is deeply moving. Ultimately, one’s tear ducts are the critical judge and jury, and only after the fact does one ask why they did or did not function. In this case the tears flowed, especially in the final rousing patriotic chorus, based on the beautiful theme of Kutuzov’s aria, in which the people express their love for great Moscow. The Russian people comprise the hero of this opera, and the brilliant, sonorous chorus was certainly the hero of the evening.

One reason this review deals with things other than the performance itself up to this point, is that the cast – over fifty strong- did not include one truly outstanding singer. The roles of Natasha and Prince Andrew, so admirably sung and acted previously by Marina Poplavskaya and Alexej Markov, were given to two Russian artists making their Metropolitan Opera debut. Indeed, they were artists, but the voice of Irina Mataeva was really too small, and too brittle, her acting too unconvincing, for the role. Vasili Ladyuk sang better than well, but once again the acting was stiff and the voice insufficiently memorable or beautiful for the listener to forget the act of singing and be drawn into the music itself. Kim Begley’s vocal distress at the top of his range also made it impossible to forget the act of singing or focus on the lovable and ardent character of Prince Pierre Bezukhov.  Although the ancient General Kutozov is described as weakened by age, it is important that his vocal part be sung in a strong and heroic way. Samuel Ramey cannot begin to accomplish this anymore in spite of the still beautiful quality of his voice. The vocal lines, generally long, slow, and declamatory, are just the thing to show aging voices at their worst. Especially painful were the sustained notes and fermatas at the end of phrases, which resembled a languorous series of sixteenth notes alternating at half step intervals. These were sad moments.

                      Ramey as Kutuzov

                    Ramey as Kutuzov

Valery Gergiev has become much more the master of ensemble between the orchestra and singers than in earlier seasons. In years past, the orchestra often overpowered even the strongest voices, as well as the full chorus, but now the entire complement rings through the house like a sonorous bell. The nuances of tone and phrase in the orchestra under his direction were most compelling.

As with the majority of productions this season, the production itself was on a much higher level than the singing – a beautiful package which sometimes brings disappointment when the contents are revealed. The superb imagination of Andrei Konchelovsky and George Tsypin, always supporting and never eclipsing the music, was everywhere evident. For sets a variety of styles is employed, from the cardboard balcony used for Natasha’s and Sonia’s conversation in the first act, (possibly a wink at Tolstoy’s above mentioned commentary in War and Peace), to the minimalist ball scene, and finally the brilliantly lit cinematic effects of Moscow in flames. 

It is staggering to think of the tangled sequence of obstacles, accumulated over the years, that stood in the way of this opera’s being heard tonight, beginning with Prokofiev’s oppressive government censors, and ending with the present production costs and the task  assembling an immense cast such as this,  that gave, it seemed, everything it had to the performance. One is reminded of Rilke’s words to his young poet that “…more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious existences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures.”  With all the reservations one might have about some of the singing, this great, mysterious work, with its infinite demands, spoke powerfully,  and deserved the ovation it received, which seemed to acknowledge the composer,  the performers, and the second half of the title, “Peace,” as well.