The acclaimed production of War and Peace by Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre, having played St.Petersburg, London, La Scala and Madrid, came to the Metropolitan Opera of New York on February 14, 2002. With the Met collaboration came more money, a larger stage (one of the largest in opera), Dmitri Hvorostovsky ("The Elvis of Opera" according to one source) as Prince Andrei, and the return to the first Western venue to bid to stage the epic work back in 1944. (It never happened.) Was this to be the ultimate War and Peace? With all thirteen scenes intact, some 1200 costumes, sixty-eight singers, several animals and nearly 350 roles; this has been reputed to be the Metropolitan Opera's largest production. And this is the Met we are talking about - not the Kansas City Opera.
I attended the March 9 performance, the last one with Gergiev conducting and my first War and Peace, so I have no basis of comparison. However, if there has ever been or ever will be a more elaborate, stirringly-performed or breathtaking effort, I do not want to see it. The mind and body has its limitations.
Somehow the word "ghostly" comes to mind in describing this production. First, the opera itself - by necessity - is only a ghost of Tolstoy's novel. The festivity of both the B and G minor waltzes is tinged with a haunting, disembodied foreboding; and George Tsypin's magical glassine sets - bare suggestions of the objects they represent - fade in and out like fragments of dreams.
Under Andrei Konchalovsky's direction, the opera becomes a series of cinematic tableaux - images at once spectral and unforgettable - fixed upon the brain by the power of Prokofiev's music: Natasha's balcony isolated among the stars; shimmering watery columns descending upon the ballroom scene; writhing lunatics silhouetted against the flames of Moscow as a confused Napoleon gazes from his white horse; and Andrei's deathbed cast upon a deserted globe as he sings in hallucinogenic fever.
Baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, looking a little like American actor Richard Gere, has had extensive experience in Italian opera, which serves him well in the tender, lyric duets with Anna Netrebko as Natasha Rostova. And what about the achingly beautiful soprano, Anna Netrebko? Is it possible to find any other adult with such a strong, sweet voice who could so convincingly portray the teenage Natasha?
Alexei Steblianko was the soul-searching Pierre Bezukhov in this performance, and conveyed his touching earnestness very well. However, the favorite with the audience seemed to be bass, Samuel Raney as Field Marshall Kutuzov. With his cane, and rakish eyepatch, he turned the old warrior, originally intended to represent Papa Stalin, into a kind of crippled god. With a voice that managed to be forceful and wobbly at the same time, his patriotic aria - which Prokofiev borrowed from the Ivan the Terrible score - seemed to evoke the greatest applause.
This brings us unavoidably to the nationalistic lyrics of the second half of the opera, which, despite Gergiev's claim that he eliminated the Soviet propaganda, still seem embarrassing today in their militant chauvinism. Maybe it was the music they were applauding; or maybe it was their own nationalism in the wake of September 11, but this (mostly) American audience went wild over them.
In fact, as this sold-out opera has become one of the key cultural and social events of the season in New York, I could not help but think of Prokofiev's 1920 remarks on his attempt to break into the New York music scene: "...looking up at the skyscrapers... I thought with a cold fury of the wonderul American orchestras that cared nothing for my music..."
How things have changed.
Robert E. Jordan