This is by any definition an epic evening of music theatre which leaves the audience at times exhilarated, at times emotionally challenged but also, after a very long night in the theatre, at times drained. It again demonstrates the ambition of Welsh National Opera and the desires of its creative members yet whether it is quite what the nation’s opera audiences would have chosen is another matter, again.
David Pountney, in his penultimate work at WNO?, and design team combine the power of this new Katya Ermolaeva and Rita McAllister’s version of the Prokofiev’s score with a beguiling theatricality of live action on stage, video design from David Haneke with whom he worked with for Fall of the House of Usher/Usher House a few years back, and footage from the Sergei Bondarchuk 1966 Soviet film version of War and Peace.
The “live” theatre action takes place largely in a space where observers look in from a curved gallery on the space that opens with Tolstoy sitting at his desk, the words of his great work appearing on a screen as all of the characters coming on stage before the sweeping drama unfolds.
In feel and look it is reminiscent of WNO’s First World War work In Parenthesis where the set was again used largely for onlookers on the action (perhaps it and the concept are recycled as Robert Innes Hopkins signed that too). This curving balcony also neatly frames the video on the back screen, whether that is the Haneke designs (particularly effective for the burning of Moscow ) or the gritty battle scenes.
Naturally Pountney has his own take on the work and, of course, has to imbue that with his view of the state of the world but fortunately the latter doesn’t get in the way of the evening’s enjoyment too much. It is with no obvious sense of nod to irony that the work revels in the great Russian Folk uniting in the defence of the Fatherland and their outrage at the outsider and contempt for their soft ways. They clearly haven’t visited Salisbury Cathedral.
There is much multi role taking including, for example, Dolokhov, Denisov, Napoleon and Raevsky from David Stout. Leah-Marian Jones and Jurgita Adamonyté similarly take a number of roles, including most notably a delicious Hélène Bezhukova and boo-hiss Madame Akhrossimova. Adrian Dwyer sang a deliciously caddish Anatole, plus other roles with Simon Bailey particularly powerful characterful as the troubled Kutuzov.
Lauren Michelle and Mark Le Brocq
David Stout and Adrian Dwyer
Lauren Michelle sang a glorious Natasha, young and spirited. It is in the nature of this reduced to almost scenes and themes attempt to capture one of literature’s gigantic works that the characterisation and understanding of her actions are pretty thin. More effectively drawn is the role of Andrei, sung splendidly by Jonathan McGovern. His death bed scene was spine tingling, despite baffling use of scenic perspectives. Marc Le Brocq captured the pivotal Pierre role with vocal and dramatic sympathy.
Yet it was the force and beauty of the WNO chorus and the orchestra under Tomáš Hanus that made this evening not only worthwhile but something special. It is a major undertaking and a commitment to Prokofiev’s musical world vision is also a requirement to fully appreciate the experience. The production works but the opera itself would not have me yearning for another outing in the near future.
Further performances: Wales Millennium Centre, Saturday, September 22 and 29.
Images Clive Barda.
About Arts Scene in Wales