BBC Proms reviews

Prom 63: War and Peace @ Royal Albert Hall, London

6 September 2003

Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall
(Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

Tim Albery’s magnificent production of Prokofiev’s epic masterpiece War and Peace received rapturous reviews at The Coliseum in 2001, quite rightly. For this season’s BBC Proms almost the entire cast was reassembled at the Royal Albert Hall for a semi-staged version – a daunting proposition for such a visually striking work but one that was resoundingly successful. It helped, of course, that cast, orchestra, chorus and conductor were all superb.

I firmly believe the ENO orchestra can hold their own against any orchestra in the country, especially with Paul Daniel in charge, and the chorus – despite, or perhaps because of, recent difficulties with the management, were in their usual terrific voice.

And then the cast – ah, what a wonderful cast. Virtually unchanged from 2001, with one significant exception. Then, Sandra Zeltzer sang Natasha, having replaced Susan Chilcott, who was ill. Sadly, we now know how serious that illness was, as she died just a few days before the Prom. Paul Daniel gave a moving tribute to her – and dedicated the performance to her – before picking up the baton.

The new Natasha was Welsh soprano Catrin Wyn-Davies, who made a sympathetic figure despite some early harshness in the upper registers. Her Andrey was once again Britain’s favourite baritone, Simon Keenlyside: a perfect Prince, his velvet tone, perfect diction (as always) and expressive face projecting every emotion. John Daszak has if anything got even better as Pierre Bezukhov, his tenor even warmer than I remembered. Willard White is the other star of the evening, reprising his dignified and moving portrayal of the ageing Field Marshall Kutusov.

Other highlights among a cast of virtually uniform high quality included John Graham Hall as the cad Anatole, Stuart Kale doubling up as General Barclay de Tolly and the soldier Karatayev and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Mariya, Natasha’s long-suffering godmother.

One might think that a semi-staged version of such an epic opera would be a let-down, but Martin Constantine’s intelligent direction for the BBC Proms was a triumph. With two simple chairs virtually the only props, and helped by the full costumes from the ENO production, one rapidly suspended disbelief and became engaged. If anything, the second half – war – was even more dramatic than during the full production. The placing of some sections of the orchestra way up in the galleries created an illusion of scale during the battle scenes that worked brilliantly – when the generals were discussing tactics it was almost as if the promenaders between them and the military drums were the troops spread out in front of them.

Peace suffered slightly more, in particular the lovely ball scene, but even this was handled well (I particularly enjoyed the entrance of the Tsar – a non-singing part and therefore invisible, but indicated by a spotlight travelling down the line of those paying homage as if he was literally casting an Imperial glow).

It was also interesting to hear the different balance between soloists, chorus and orchestra that resulted from their relative placement on stage, and to observe the effect of having the soloists closer to the audience than they can be with an orchestra in the pit. The action, restricted as it was of necessity, became more intimate and therefore even more moving than at the Coliseum. I would hardly have thought it possible.

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