War and Peace is Prokofiev’s greatest operatic triumph, managing to distil the vast scale of the novel into nearly three and a half gripping hours of beauty and horror in equal measures. The new production at ENO is also a triumph. Divided into just two long acts – first peace, then war – there was hardly a rustle or a cough as the events unfolded on stage, and hardly a foot put wrong by Director Tim Albery.
As in the first production in the UK back in 1972 (revived in 1984) the performance opens with a stunning burst of noise as the whole (huge) chorus of Russian people affirm their strength and ability to repel enemy invaders. A drop-down screen informs us that this is 1941, drawing attention to the uncanny parallels between the German invasion in that year and the Napoleonic invasion of 1812.
Any fears that we were about to have an updated version were dispelled by a switch back to 1809, again explained on the screen – a device which was used to discreet and good effect throughout, to help with navigating our way through the myriad changes of scene and time. These are handled intelligently and with the minimum of fuss, a few well-chosen props establishing each new setting and in the war scenes, cleverly alternating between the two opposing armies.
The screen is used again to give some feeling of the scale of the armies, and the burning of Moscow is an amazing coup de theatre. The shadows of fleeing townspeople silhouetted against the flames are extraordinarily effective: an image to remain in the memory. At the opposite end of the emotional scale we had beautiful, delicate choreography and costumes for a sumptuous ball scene.
The irony is that aids such as the screen identifying location were scarcely necessary, because the diction of virtually all the cast was the best I have ever heard in the notoriously difficult acoustics of the Coliseum. With the one exception of the heroine, Natasha, almost every word was crystal clear, which greatly added not only to the understanding, but also to the emotion and tension of the performance. And what a performance.
Where to start? Paul Daniel, as usual, brought the very best out of the ENO orchestra, which is pretty good even on an off day. The chorus was magnificent. The cast of over twenty principals (no wonder this is a rarely performed opera) was fabulous. There were wonderful vignettes by, among others, Stephanie Marshall as Natasha’s cousin Sonya, John Graham-Hall as the cad Anatole Kuragin, Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Natasha’s godmother, Gwynne Howell as both Prince Nicolai Bolkonsky (nutty as a fruit cake) and General Bennigsen, Peter Sidhom as Napoleon.
Among the main characters, Willard White was moving as the ageing Field Marshall Kutuzov, his deep, treacly voice in wonderful form. The show was stolen by the two main male protagonists, however. John Daszak gradually built in power and eloquence just as Pierre Bezukhov’s character grows in stature: twittery and fussy at the beginning and a real, dignified stage presence at the end, with a warm tenor and some fine acting. Simon Keenlyside as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who woos but then loses Natasha only to find her again as he is dying on the battlefield, was simply astonishing. His voice is that most beautiful of things, a clear and unforced baritone, and coupled with perfect diction (literally every word was clear), a highly expressive face and suitably handsome figure he brought Andrei to life as if made for the part. I have rarely heard more beautiful singing. Not surprisingly, he appears to be in great demand in international opera houses and it is extraordinary that this is his ENO debut.
The one disappointment of this production was Natasha herself. Originally engaged as understudy for the role, Sandra Zeltzer was promoted on the withdrawal of Susan Chilcott through illness. Her voice is pretty enough, though with too much vibrato for my taste, and as a companion pointed out, it sounded as if you were hearing her on a radio that wasn’t quite tuned in. Call in the diction coach, please – if all the others could do it, so can she.
The good news is that unlike last time War and Peace came to London there are ten performances of this production: don’t miss.