Prokofiev – War and Peace

Opéra National de Paris – Bastille, March 17 2005

Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski. Production: Francesca Zambello. Sets: John Macfarlane. Costumes: Nicky Gillibrand. Prince Andrei Bolkonski: Bo Skovhus. Natasha Rostova: Olga Guryakova. Sonia/aide de camp to Marshal Murat: Larisa Kostyuk. Maria D. Akhrossimova: Felicity Palmer. Madame Peronskaïa: Irina Bogatcheva. Count Ilia A. Rostov/General Bennigsen: Leonid Zimnenko. Count Piotr Bezukhov: Michaël König.. Countess Hélène Bezukhova: Elena Zaremba. Anatoly Kuragin/General Barclay de Tolly: Vsevolod Grivnov. Princess Maria: Susana Poretsky. Prince Nikolai A. Bolkonski: Gleb Nikolsky. Balaga/Tikhon Cherbaty/Matveiev: Vladimir Matorine. Gipsy Matriocha: Irina Doljenko. Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov: Vladimir Ognovenko. Napoleon: Vassili Gerello. Platon Karataïev: Nikolai Gassiev. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Time I came out

It was marvellous to see this great production on its third outing in Paris. I was afraid that novelty possibly wearing off or over-familarity with the perfection of the DVD might lead to disappointment this time, but no. It remains one of the best productions I’ve ever seen and certainly the best on this kind of scale (all the other really great examples I can think of were of more intimate works or took place in more intimate theatres).

Now, I have many American friends, and have often seen it written that the Met’s War & Peace was one of that house’s best shows. Not wanting to hurt their feelings, so far I’ve kept my opinion in the closet. But after seeing Francesca Zambello’s production again, I have decided to throw delicacy to the winds and come out: Paris’s production is better by far – the irony being that New York brought in Russians while the American was in Paris.

The New York Times, as I remember, made a great fuss about the expense of the production and the time and effort going into rehearsals. So much so that I crossed the Atlantic to witness the result. Well, we all remember the extra who fell off the stage on the first night. In Peace, it looked as if the Russian aristocracy bought their furniture at Home Depot. In War, the armies were a complete shambles, incapable of marching in step; and the burning of Moscow was – sorry – 70s Soviet Kitsch. Nobody, it seemed, could afford a tailor. Vocally, though there were stars, the evening was unbalanced.

What I saw on Thursday evening (and saw in 2000, see in the video and will see again at the Bastille in April) was a more coherent spectacle by far. Zambello may have made a hash of some of her productions, but not here, where the danger was surely greatest. Nearly everything, from the sweep of the backdrops, the glide of the sets and the astonishingly well-managed crowd movements, to the details of dancing, gesture and costume (700 individually-fitted items: this is Paris après tout, Monsieur!), is right. I will not go on to describe it as it can be seen on the DVD – it, too, one of the best of all opera DVDs available – along with a “making of” documentary that brings home the (terrifying) scope of the whole undertaking.

What about the music? Well – for those who may not already know this – French orchestras play well or badly depending on how well they get on with the conductor. On Thursday night, not only did they stay in the pit at the end – instead of dashing off as if there were a fire, their usual practice – they stood and applauded Vladimir Jurowski as he took his bows. He coaxed some marvellous, detailed playing from them, an extraordinary silkiness in the strings and delicacy in the winds in the opening bars being a sign of many good things to come over the ensuing 4 hours.

The cast was well balanced again, and overall the secondary roles were perhaps more evenly distributed this time than in 2000. Among the stars… well, I’ll try to be brief. In 2000, Olga Guryakova seemed to have a voice that simply went on forever, as it were. Some of the youthful freshness and bloom has gone, but it’s still a gorgeous – and powerful – instrument. Bo Skovhus must have had a bad night at the première – so the critics agree; on Thursday, I have to say, much as I like Nathan Gunn, he was better. It doesn’t show on the DVD, but Gunn was underpowered live, Skovhus was not, and sang with power and elegance. Elena Zaremba was exactly the same; Grivnov, as Kuragin, did not have the same physical and vocal swagger as Margita.

Michaël König’s voice is less heroic, more lyrical than Brubaker’s, but his fatter figure, less dashing presence and lack of aura may actually suit the part better. Vladimir Ognovenko, as Kutuzov, was thrown in his first scene by entering a bar early (“drink,” said one of my friends, but the character does have a patch over one eye…) but sang his big “Moscow” solo magnificently. Gerello was the same as before. Felicity Palmer had more actual voice left than Obratsova, who barked more than she sang in 2000. The chorus were, under Jurowski, more nuanced but impressive and excellent nevertheless.

Though a reprise, the show remains well-oiled. Obviously, some of the novelty has worn off for both performers and spectators. But it’s a truly great production, well worth visiting Paris for – as I did New York, after all – and as I’ve already stated many times, everyone should own the video.


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