When English National Opera’s general director Nicholas Payne and its music director Paul Daniel were spotted at Covent Garden during a performance of the Kirov’s most recent War and Peace, it was tempting to guess which way their thoughts were heading. But could a company then about to embark on a daunting Italian season and a new Wagner Ring cycle, with Berlioz’s epic Trojans already announced, dare to climb another Everest on a shoestring?
It dared - and won. As the time for the new War and Peace drew near, some of us fretted that, faced with the inevitable question of cuts, they might get it as wrong as the ruthless director of the 1999 Kirov production, Andrei Konchalovsky, whose sumptuous vision and meticulous eye for Tolstoyan detail allied to Gergiev’s ever more focused grasp of the score, had became increasingly undermined by gaping holes in the drama. Konchalovsky had started by shedding the brilliant scherzo of a scene in which Anatole Kuragin’s shallow motives are crucially exposed and tore through many of the war scenes, culminating in a “Burning of Moscow” which hardly made sense. At least the heart and soul of the Kutuzov aria missing from the St Petersburg première had been restored for London performances, after many of us had pleaded with Gergiev on the grounds that it was above all the great Norman Bailey’s interpretation of this ineffable theme which Londoners remembered from the previous ENO production. That, of course, had not been without its cuts; but what would the director of the new staging, Tim Albery, be ready, willing, or forced to accept? When I met him in Glasgow two months before he was due to start work at ENO, he regretted that the company simply didn’t have the resources to bring on the lamenting refugees from Smolensk near the beginning of the first war scene, “Before Borodino”. Remembering the impact of similar scenes in Martinu’s The Greek Passion at a time when the images of Kosovo were so shocking, one realised that this would be a loss to the aspect of the devastation war brings in its wake, which Prokofiev constantly tries to emphasise.
As it turned out, the vast majority of the cuts were so intelligent that the second half of the evening, where as usual they mostly fell, came across stronger and more uncompromising than I can ever remember it. One has to bear in mind that much of this was a legacy from the previous ENO production and its attendant revivals, when the wise hands of Edward Downes and David Lloyd Jones took the knife to so much of the patriotic bolstering (and having seen Lloyd Jones’s name signed against the relevant manuscripts in Moscow’s Glinka Museum, I’m sure he must have examined Prokofiev’s protracted work on the opera in detail). The banal anticlimax of a flatulent set-piece added at a late stage for Kutuzov after his stirring entrance had gone, along with extended Russian songs in the Napoleon scene, the Les Misérables-like stand-and-deliver numbers of the Muscovites during the fire and some of the padding of the final scene. Casualties featuring a few of Prokofiev’s more telling thumbnail sketches were bearable in the face of the unerring theatrical pace maintained in each scene.
All this would have been less impressive had Albery not brought it to bear on a responsible and often shattering attitude to the pity and terror of war. The occasional rugged, Soviet style tenacity of the choral writing was explained by introducing the ENO chorus as the determined resistors of Hitler’s 1941 invasion. A solitary peasant shuffling in front of a 1970s housing block reminded us of the helpless, silent “now” at the beginning; when the backcloth rose to reveal the assembled company, we were instantly cast in to the maelstrom “then” of the Second World War. It was excuse enough to launch in to the hard-hitting choral Epigraph. I’ve heard this used persuasively as an explosion to follow the announcement of war at the end of the last “peace” scene - it begins in the same key - in the Chandos recording made at the Spoleto Festival, and your editor tells me it had an overwhelming impact in the same place during Francesca Zambello’s production for the Paris Opera; but here it allowed the Russian people to tell a 20th-century tale before moving on to participate, and “stage” the events around 1812. Their involvement could then blur the historical lines once the older campaign was truly under way. Much of this was also achieved by the screen on to which a selection of images and film footage were projected. Having stepped in vividly to counterpoint the musical collage of three different regiments in the first war scene, it then accumulated a multitude of head shots as the common feeling of the soldiers for Kutuzov built up a head of steam, and switched dramatically to a sea of crosses as the first shells exploded, matching the way Prokofiev’s music exploits the gulf between team spirit and the grim reality. On the stage itself, corpses left by a horrifyingly dramatic explosion at the end of the Napoleon scene were searched, hopefully or despairingly, by a group of women in the coda of Kutuzov’s big aria; the wan oboe solo purposefully evoked the “Field of the Dead” music from Nevsky as well as those poignant etchings of mothers seeking their sons on the battlefield by the German artist Kathe Kollwitz.
As for “peace”, inevitably its scenes of cinematic grandeur looked a little more provisional on the limited budget, with none of the moonstruck magic Konchalovsky had found in the New Year’s Eve ball at which Natasha dances with Andrei. The corner of a parquet floor beneath projections of a chandelier and a singularly unmagical balcony shot could not evoke the poetry of a May night on the Rostov estate. But here - and at last we get to the performances - there was instant moonshine from the orchestra and an immediate sense of Prince Andrei’s divided soul from Simon Keenlyside. Thomas Allen, by all accounts, was an excellent prince in the previous ENO production, but Keenlyside, with his handsome presence requiring little more than the telling minimum of physical gesture and his dark, world-class lyric baritone never more at the service of text and nuance, was Andrei to the life. His bleak poise in the battle scenes focused all attention, and his death scene struck a note of painful realism, beyond the sentimental plain - though that is also true, of course, of Tolstoy’s unflinching description and Prokofiev’s awesome reflections on a soul crossing over to the other side. Little wonder if, as he told me subsequently during an interview focused on his forthcoming Don Giovanni, Keenlyside had been walking the London streets in the small hours, unable to sleep after performances.
Unfortunately Andrei disappears from the picture for five of the seven “peace” scenes, which usually stand or fall by the sympathy we feel for the vulnerability of the young Natasha. ENO’s hopes had been pinned on Susan Chilcott, a radiant and intelligent lyric soprano, whose sudden, shocking withdrawal to face a breast cancer operation forced the decision to rush her relatively inexperienced cover, Sandra Zeltzer, in to the role (we learn, incidentally, with relief that in spite of the seriousness of Ms Chilcott’s condition, she is now “in the clear”). Zeltzer, unfortunately, fell short on all counts: unintelligible diction, an unhealthy spread in the voice above the stave and, despite a certain placid prettiness, an inability to express the emotions tearing the poor girl apart - her reaction to the news of the foiled elopement produced merely stagy petulance rather than fathomless despair. It says so much for the general commitment that even this could not sink the first half of the evening: Daniel’s miraculous sense of pace and illustration of every gesture complemented a fluid production in which the mere reassamblage of the furniture was enough to move us from Bolkonsky’s house to Hélène Bezukhova’s salon. And how compelling were the snakelike temptress and her feckless brother in the hands of Susan Parry - luxury casting indeed - and John Graham Hall (no competition on the looks front with Natasha’s absent fiancé, one would have thought, but persuasive enough in the three minutes Prokofiev gives him for seduction). The “Anatole at home” scene proved what a marvellous satiric interlude Prokofiev provides, Three Oranges style, and had plenty of pace (though why not follow Prokofiev’s illustration of Balaga downing his wine or the smashing of the glasses?)
Even better things were to carry Zeltzer’s shortcomings in the next scene - the superlative Akhrossimova of Catherine Wyn-Rogers, another truly world-class ENO regular ageing convincingly, and Pierre at last appearing on the scene in the shape of company principal John Daszak (I found the introduction of his meandering, pensive theme in Daniel’s hands one of the most tearfully wonderful moments of the evening). Daszak’s ringing tenor tends to have been pushed to the limits by the roles ENO has given him of late – looks big, sounds Mozart - but he complemented Keenlyside with crucially clear delivery of the text and looked the part, even if his conception of the role was hardly as deeply felt as that of Gegam Grigorian in the 1991 Kirov production. Yet not only did Daszak intensify the characterization in the “Burning of Moscow” sequence – thankfully nearly all his music, and his scenes with Platon Karataev, survived the shearing – a process which had wrecked Konchalovsky’s conception here – but he also seemed possessed by the general level of increasing conviction as the run moved towards its end. I saw two performances; and though the first commanded admiration for an already impressive achievement, the second carried an electric charge which communicated itself throughout the evening to the audience. By this stage Daniel’s inflection of the first-half dances and the conflagrations of war matched Gergiev at his best.
Certainly Willard White’s charismatic if musically rather free portrayal of Kutuzov was preferable to the later performances of Matthew Best, notewise more correct but inevitably less convincing as the grizzled leader with the soul of gold. Yet Best’s perfectly sound takeover was surely a small price to pay just to be there when the ENO War and Peace finally ignited. Such dynamics show how fatal first-night critical judgements can be, especially in the case of a large-scale production which needs time to find its stride; and here indeed was a case where public word of mouth eventually triumphed over mixed reviews. Can ENO afford to bring it back, with Chilcott as Natasha? Watch this space.