Mariinsky II, St. Petersburg - 2014
Valery Gergiev, Graham Vick, Andrei Bondarenko, Aida Garifullina, Yulia Matochkina, Larisa Diadkova, Sergei Aleksashkin, Yevgeny Akimov, Maria Maksakova, Ilya Selivanov, Edward Tsanga, Yekaterina Sergeyeva, Gennady Bezzubenkov, Vasily Gerello
More2Screen Cinema Live in HD - 16 July 2014
It seems obvious to divide War and Peace into two distinct parts. That's the way that Tolstoy divides the novel and that's the structure that Prokofiev follows in his opera version. But when did Graham Vick ever do the obvious? The British director is not one to shy away from controversy either, but while his staging and Paul Brown's set designs take considerable modernising liberties with the Mariinsky's 2014 production of Prokofiev's 1942 epic War and Peace, he uncharacteristically tends to steer away from any overt contemporary political commentary in relation to war and peace as far as it relates to Russian current and foreign affairs.
What Vick does manage to bring out of this work however is the recognition of the fact that war and peace are, if you want to put it in such terms, two sides of the same coin. They aren't as distinct as the title of Tolstoy's masterwork might make them seem (although such considerations are infinitely more subtly drawn in the epic and intimate scope of the actual novel). How Vick approaches this is clever, even if it seems counter-intuitive and almost deliberately contrary. He reverses the traditional division of the two-part work, depicting Act I's Peace section as War, and Act II's War section as Peace. He's not too subtle about it either.
The intent is made clear right from the opening scene, as Prince Andrei Bolonsky looks out over the garden in dark contemplation over the turn his life has taken, leaving him a widower. In Vick's interpretation, he's at war with himself, contemplating suicide with a gun held to his head, only to be saved at the last moment by the freshness of Natasha Rostova's appreciation of the beauty of the spring night with her sister Sonya. It's a strong opening scene that sets the tone for the work and encapsulates much of Tolstoy's views of the individual human experience in relation to history and historical events, and Vick's staging of this scene alone brings that out very well. In reality however it does much more than that.
Already Paul Brown's busy set designs hint at a wider view of history and war that goes beyond the traditional military one. A class war might be an obvious one to allude to in the Russian context, but as I've said, Vick doesn't do obvious. The second scene, at the ball, more or less suggests that a rather more self-destructive aristocracy. Actually, never mind 'less', it's clearly 'more'. Footmen wear gas masks set out chairs for the ball, and they are worn also by the dancing guests. And just in case the poster images of designer goods, commercialism, wealth, industry and gold don't make it clear enough, a tank also rolls across the stage. All this is in the traditional 'Peace' section of the opera.
Arguably, although the score for this section is quite lyrical with a hint of Tchaikovsky in the ballroom dances, Prokofiev's rather more modern score brings out this sense of unease and corruption within a decadent aristocracy. That edge is certainly given full expression in Vick's staging, Hélène Bezukhova's meeting with Natasha, for example, taking place in a gilt-marbled bathroom with gold fittings where the Countess has been snorting cocaine, both women dressed and looking like fashion-models (and as such both very HD-friendly for this live broadcast). Similar scenes are played out by Hélène's brother Anatole's attempted elopement with Natasha in a limousine where a gun is brandished by his driver, and cocaine use is again in evidence.
There's clearly a war of some sorts here, but Vick isn't able to pin it down to any one thing, and as a consequence risks dissipating any impact that might be gained through a more specific contemporary commentary. Act II then throws in footage of WWII (which would indeed have been relevant to Prokofiev writing in 1942) and mixes troops in modern combat gear with officers in Napoleonic uniforms (mostly on the high command, if that's a purposeful distinction). The context is however very specifically Russian, but there's no getting around that fact with the nature of the work, and the addition of all the huge nationalistic choral pieces, added by the composer at the behest of the Russian censor.
There's no more rousing piece in this respect than Field-Marshal Kutuzov's rousing proclamation in Act II over the fate of the Russian people and the decision to temporarily sacrifice Moscow to Napoleon's army. Vick stages it marvellously - and it's sung marvellously too by Gennady Bezzubenkov - the Commander striding out afterwards into the Orchestra Stalls of the Mariinsky II to receive approval, handshakes and high-fives from members of his people. Most significantly here, as throughout the whole of Act II, is the slogan of 'Peace' (мир) featuring prominently in the background. As he depicted 'War' in Act I (война), Act II in Vick's production is all about 'Peace' and, arguably, the sacrifice of Moscow and all the efforts of the heroic Kutuzov are designed to bring about peace, not wage war.
Dividing such an epic work up into a number of scenes makes it difficult for Prokofiev to really do justice to Tolstoy's masterpiece. This is my first time hearing the work, so it might reveal other aspects in time, but the score does indeed seem to be patchwork in nature, not really grasping the scope or bringing it together in as consistent a manner as Tolstoy. On the other hand, certain important aspects work very well on both the grand scale and the intimate. Pierre's declaration scene to Natasha in Act I is very lyrical and affecting. Pierre is the heart of the work, the one whose eyes are open to the corruption of the elite in Act I, the only hope of decency in this vile society of wealth and privilege, and his resolve in Act II brings about a sense of healing and continuity. As such he's also central to Vick's concept and in terms of staging and singing (a heartfelt performance by Yevgeny Akimov) this works remarkably well.
Also important to the work and well-arranged by Prokofiev - although the immense scope of the work means that they only have relatively minor roles in Act II - are Natasha and Andrei. Again, hope, reconciliation and mutual understanding on the small scale is important if it is to be understood in terms of the grander picture of history, and that's all there in the opera. Vick's attempt to put all that on the stage isn't always successful and Paul Brown's busy set designs can be a little messy and not too pretty to look at, not always complementing Valery Gergiev's conducting of the work at the Mariinsky II, but the singing contributes immeasurably towards making this work. More than just being HD-friendly in appearance, the young cast are also incredibly talented singers. There's not a weak element here, but Aida Garifullina is simply outstanding as Natasha and is a fine match for Andrei Bondarenko's sensitive account of Andrei.