War and Peace, Sat 13th October
Prokofiev's War and Peace has struggled to gain a foothold in the repertoire since it was first conceived at the height of the Second World War. It has been subject to many revisions at the hand of the composer (and others) and it never found a finished form that would persuade opera houses around the world to programme a work on this scale.
It is a huge feather in the cap of Welsh National Opera that they have taken on the challenge of staging a production the demands 70 named roles, a large chorus and an even larger orchestra. They have not simply risen to the challenge, they have exceeded expectations with what, on the whole, is an outstanding piece of work.
It is a production that is well cast throughout. Many of the principal actors take on multiple roles throughout the evening - I think one cast member alone played 7! All are well characterised and well sung.
Vocally the spoils are shared between Jonathon McGovern's elegantly sung Andrei and Mark Le Brocq's tormented and humane Pierre. Both tackle the testing music with confidence and ease. Lauren Michelle is a very touching Natasha - using her youthful soprano to good effect - with some very beautiful floated notes at key moments.
Leah-Marian Jones, David Stout and James Platt each made outstanding contributions in their many roles. To be fair, the same is true of all the principals. It was very grown-up music-making from everyone involved.
Tomas Hanus marshalled his orchestra forces with absolute authority from start to finish. He allowed the dances to flow with finesse whilst also being able to ramp up the power where needed for the battles and rousing chorales. He brought a difficult score to life with apparent nonchalance.
Special credit should also go to the costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca. Using a limited palette and a witty mix of 19th and 20th century elements, she conjured up the world of Tolstoy's characters beautifully. A really impressive set of designs.
My main concerns about the evening rest on the shoulders of the director, David Pountney. There is no doubting his passion for the project or his devotion to it. But overall his direction is somewhat old fashioned. It lacks any real originality or flair. At times, it is downright clunky - particularly in the handling of chorus movement which rarely convinces (even though musically, the chorus are flawless). The translation does occasionally become banal but it does serve to tell the heavily-edited story well enough.
Productions of War and Peace are rarer than they ought to be. It is a piece with enormous power and WNO are to be applauded for giving audiences a chance to hear it sung and played so well.