Anne Midgette reviews Mariinsky Opera's 'War and Peace' at Kennedy Center

The Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra returns to the Kennedy Center -- with 30 tons of scenery and props -- to stage Prokofiev's "War and Peace."
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 8, 2010

"War and Peace," the opera, arrived at the Kennedy Center freighted with expectations. Terms like "sprawling" and "masterpiece" are often applied to Prokofiev's score, in keeping with its literary model, Tolstoy's novel. Add in the curiosity value of the opera, seldom done in the West until the Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra began taking it on the road. Then there's the buzz surrounding the massive production, weighing in at 30 tons and costing $2 million to import. Saturday night's performance, conducted by Valery Gergiev, had an awful lot to live up to.

For the most part, it did. The performance, for all its ups and downs, was the best thing the Mariinsky offered over the past week of residency at the Kennedy Center. And the opera, like a good book, showed itself to be one of those pieces that benefits from closer acquaintance -- once you penetrate all its trappings to see it for what it really is.

The opera could really be called "Peace" and "War." The first half deals entirely with relationship issues in conventional operatic style; the second half is a large-scale, Socialist Realist paean to Russia and its people; and the two halves were, in the work's 1946 incarnation, conceived as consecutive evenings rather than one long night.

The first half's conventional properties -- including lilting ballroom music flowing like a bittersweet undercurrent beneath some the action -- helped make it a runaway hit in the Soviet Union after its first performance. The second half is craggier, its scenes like great blocks of basalt: It focuses on Russia as its main protagonist, rather than individual characters, and was viewed as problematic enough that it was suppressed after its dress rehearsal. Prokofiev continued working on revisions until 1952, but never got to see it performed.

A relic of its time

Today, however, the second half of the opera seems like a perfect relic of its political era -- glorification of the brave collective, rousing populist choruses and all. Dramatically, this is a pretty static construct: the War scenes are, for the most part, not as satisfying as the Peace ones, unless you supply for yourself the documentary aspects, imagining the way an audience in 1946 might have felt hearing General Kutuzov sing an ode to the city of Moscow before leaving it in the hands of the enemy. (Assuming, that is, that they could hear him; on Saturday, Gennady Bezzubenkov was dignified but frequently inaudible.)

The mistake lies in expecting the two halves to be part of the same balanced whole. In fact their disparity is one of the opera's strengths. It zeros in on the detailed and personal (Natasha's engagement to Prince Andrey, and subsequent thwarted elopement with Anatol), then pulls back for a big-picture view of history (Napoleon surveying the battlefield of Borodino). The score underlines this, sometimes stopping the action, at a big moment, with a delicate flute solo, thrusting detail and monumentality into the same frame. This juxtaposition is exactly the reason the opera's two halves, for all their length, belong in the same evening.

Also thwarting expectations is Andrei Konchalovsky's production, which presents an appearance of minimalism in lieu of the visual opulence that advance reports of its size and cost might lead one to expect. I was disappointed the first time I saw it, at the Metropolitan Opera a few years ago, and much more appreciative of it now.

The main element of George Tsypin's set is a huge curved turntable, like a slice of the globe, that at once conveys the sense that the whole world is onstage and makes everything seem smaller, or intimate, because it makes the stage seem crowded. Beyond this, scenes are set with a piece or two of furniture, a door or window frame, and projections across the curving back wall, which could transform into a spangled cityscape of Moscow (in Prince Andrey's deathbed encounter with Natasha, presented here as a kind of fever dream) or the huge sky of the steppe, with scudding clouds. The production also had its cheesy moments, including the extras who marched through, dressed as soldiers, with the bottoms of their white pants painted black to make them look like boots.

Tired singers?

Saturday's performance was cast with a striking, almost cinematic fidelity to the characters. The stout Pierre (the tenor Alexei Steblianko), the waiflike but spunky Natasha (Irina Mataeva), the matronly Madame Akhrosimova, her godmother (Irina Bogacheva), the handsome Prince Andrey (Alexei Markov). Unfortunately, they didn't all sound as good as they looked: Bogacheva's wobble might have been true to her character, but Steblianko's tendency to crack was not. Some were doubtless tired after singing nearly every day. Mataeva found her ease and shine in one scene of Act I, but for the most part sounded unhappily worn. The tenor Sergei Skorokhodov sounded no better as Anatol than he had two nights before in "Iolanta."

The bass Mikhail Petrenko, on the other hand, had his best outing yet in what looked like a fun role for a singer, Prince Andrey's crazy invalid father, who appears in a Dickensian nightshirt, with wild gray hair, and insults Natasha before running off again. And there were a couple of noteworthy singers among the host of smaller roles: Mikhail Kolelishvili, singing with amellifluous bass in several parts, including the coachman Balaga; and Adsrtem Melikhov, also in several parts, including one penetrating passage as a passing Madman.

Valery Gergiev, after conducting every night this past week, plus rehearsals during the day (he had led the premiere of Shostakovich's "The Nose" at the Metropolitan Opera the night before), sounded miraculously vigorous in the pit. The orchestra's flaws, this week, have lain in raggedness, or sounding routine, or sometimes sounding chaotic -- but it also kept the energy going through a rich four-hour score. The Mariinsky Chorus also has done yeoman service all week; also sometimes ragged, and certainly uneven on Saturday, but overall showing a quality of sound that represents the Russian vocal tradition at its best.

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