Dancing with bears
Dmitri Tcherniakov directs War and Peace in Munich (***½)
Auteur : Jos Hermans
When he attends the premiere of Peace, the first part of what he considers to be his magnum opus, in the war year of 1945, on June 7, Sergei Prokofiev is in fact deathly ill. Migraines and skyrocketing blood pressure have been making his life a hell for several years after an unfortunate fall in which he hurt his head. The first scenic performance of Peace follows on June 12, 1946, at the Maly Opera Theatre in Leningrad. By December, the opera has already appeared on stage 40 times, almost always to a sold-out audience. In season 1946-1947, it will already have seen a total of 105 performances.
Delayed by the interference of Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin's factotum on cultural matters, the composer will not live to see the premiere of the integral, two-part work. That will not happen until 12 years later at the Stanislavsky/Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater on Nov. 8, 1957. Four years earlier, Prokofiev had already laid his painful head to rest for good, and on the very same day as his tormentor Joseph Stalin. The Committee for Artistic Affairs, which made sure that all recalcitrant operas were adapted into the straitjacket of socialist realism, had raised objections: the military scenes were not heroic enough, the vocal style had to be more lyrical and less focused on the rendering of words. As always, Prokofiev's vocal style focused on the natural rhythm of the spoken language while the symphonic fabric in the background provided the context. Even his best friend Miaskovsky was driven to despair by the many conversational scenes. Hence the piece benefits greatly from soloists who know how to articulate their parts engagingly.
"War and Peace" is an opera in which Prokofiev seems to synthesize the influences of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky. Part 1 describes the life of the Russian aristocracy. Everything here revolves around the character of Natasha. Who falls in love with the melancholy Prince Andrei Bolkonsky but then allows herself to be kidnapped by the windbag Anatol Kuragin after the blunt rejection by Andrei's father. Part 2 begins with the battle of Borodino and ends with the liberation of Moscow. The scene connecting the two parts is the penultimate one in which Andrei reconciles with Natasha and succumbs to his war wounds. Central to part 2, however, is the character of Field Marshal Kutuzov, the paternal hero, in whom Stalin, at the time of composition newly crowned victor of the "patriotic war," could undoubtedly recognize himself.
Four versions emerged and usually the last one is played, consisting of 13 scenes, an overture and an epigraph. The epigraph, a patriotic song for the chorus (and really not very good music), is meant to replace the overture or it comes at the end of the first part or at the beginning of the second part as it does here in Munich.
Dmitri Tcherniakov's unique set is a stunning copy of the House of Unions in Moscow, known for its grand receptions and state funerals, complete with colonnade and chandeliers. It never ceases to amaze me how directors can look for authenticity in details and otherwise go completely their own way. The chorus is present on stage throughout the entire performance, portrayed as a kind of refugees seated on cots, as spectators, sometimes commenting or engaging in trivial activities such as blowing soap bubbles. Framing the intimist scenes of the first part by this crowd happens without much problems. The ball scene with its beautiful introduction is an obvious highlight : as dance music there is a strange polonaise, a mazurka, an écossaise and the crucial waltz in B minor in which Andrej and Natasha fall in love with each other. The theme of the waltz, the recurring theme throughout the piece, keeps the sweet memory of the first love alive. It is also the earworm of the play, which can reverberate in one's head for days to come. When Pierre is shot by a boy with a water pistol, it's time for Part 2.
If Part 1 could hold its own because of the crafty stage direction and the engaged performances of Olga Kulchynska, Part 2 is an unmitigated disaster. The narrative drowns in scenic overkill caused by the hyper-kinetic chorus and bland military exercises. Not only is the historical dimension of the play completely erased, all patriotic scenes are deleted. The compelling -unbearable, the director will say- patriotism is the backbone of the second part, the only thing that keeps you on your toes as a spectator. Without it, there is nothing to experience. And so the praises of the land forces to Father Kutusov (scene 8) are cut, as well as the beautiful chorus of Muscovites (scene 11), the entire scene 10 (Kutusov with the army generals) and, of course, "Velichavaya, v solnechnyh luchah," Kutuzov's aria borrowed from the film score of Ivan The Terrible, which in normal circumstances is also adopted by the chorus in the intoxicatingly patriotic closing minutes of the piece, now heightened with the heroic splendor of the timpani. That final chorus includes such phrases as : "We defended our Russia with our blood. Defended our vast country. The field marshal guided us, led us in the just struggle for our homeland." After a full year of anti-Russia propaganda, this could not have been expected to echo from the throats of the full choir. For today (unlike 1812) Russia is the aggressor, conductor Vladimir Jurowski believes. Jurowski still seems to believe in the fairy tale of an unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine for the purpose of territorial expansion. Why is Jurowski not wise enough to understand that a proxy war is being fought in Ukraine between the United States and Russia? For Russians today, this confrontation is as existential as the one with Napoleon. The scene with Napoleon (blue vest, red pants and yellow tie) is pure slapstick. If Napoleon is a caricature, Kutuzov is turned into a Russian Onslow by the director. His performer, Dmitry Ulyanov, is not given much to sing; just about everything is deleted. In the closing bars, he is disposed of for good with a state funeral while a 24-piece banda plays the finale of Prokofiev's first version.
Andrei Zhilikhovsky is not particularly overpowering as Andrei. Like a tormented Werther, he is supposed to walk through the tragic episodes of his life : as the grieving widower at the beginning, as the infatuated but reserved lover in the ball scene, as the officer with suicidal tendencies when he refuses to take a less risky position during the war against the French. The reunion with the love of his life is the ultimate delirium and romantic climax of the play. With Tcherniakov, the character never comes alive.
Olga Kulchynska is once again her stunning self as Natasha. She achieves all the desired sensuality when she sings out her infatuation. She also provides the highlight of the first act with her hysterical response to Akhrossimova's sermon. Fascinating is how Prokofiev ratchets up the tension with an austere accompaniment of plucked strings in the low strings. Fascinatingly articulated in quasi-spoken language is the subsequent passage in which Violeta Urmana as Akhrossimova informs Pierre of Natasha's flight with Anatol. Arsen Soghomonyan as Pierre Besuchov failed to charm me with his unpleasant, narrow timbre. Bekhzod Davronov fascinated as Anatol Kuragin. Tómas Tómasson could enjoy himself in the caricature of Napoleon.
Watch the show at ARTE concert.