Opera meets Hollywood

Review: Zeffirelli treatment of `War and Peace' makes for a grand performance.

March 11, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Many an intimidating copy of Tolstoy's War and Peace sits unread on a shelf, though people always mean to read it sometime, all 1,500 pages of it. At least everyone knows the novel is a masterpiece.

Prokofiev's War and Peace goes largely unheard and unseen. Although some folks occasionally express an interest in the opera, all four hours of it, the word "masterpiece" doesn't always work its way into the conversation.

The Metropolitan Opera's new production, in conjunction with the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, successfully challenges the conventional wisdom that Prokofiev wasn't the right man to distill Tolstoy. Even with its few undeniable dry spots, the opera emerges as a major work.

It also benefits from positively brilliant stagecraft.

This first-ever War and Peace at the Met is very Hollywood - from the swirling waltz scenes right out of a 1940s Technicolor musical to the battle scenes, with masses of troops and flags, and explosions sending bodies into the air.

The whole opera takes place on a huge curved platform - like the top half of a globe - that spins around as scenes change; props appear and disappear with cinematic fluidity.

The burning of Moscow, ingeniously achieved here in such a way as to convey both the horror and the nobility of the Muscovites' self-inflicted devastation, is just about as impressive as the burning of Atlanta in Gone With the Wind. And Napoleon's subsequent retreat - hunched over on his white stallion, moving slowly through the snow, surrounded by limping soldiers - is no less vivid.

The Met, where director Franco ("Anything-you-can-stage-I-can-stage-gra nder") Zeffirelli continues to wow the public, is certainly no stranger to excessive productions. But War and Peace, with concept and direction by Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky, sets by George Tsypin and lighting by James F. Ingalls, isn't really over-the-top. A pretty neat trick, considering that the piece involves 52 solo singers, 120 choristers, 41 dancers, 227 supernumeraries, a horse, a goat, a dog, four chickens and 1,000 costumes.

(The supernumerary whose headline-generating fall - or possibly deliberate jump - into the orchestra pit stopped the opening night performance on Feb. 14, is no longer part of the action. The Met dismissed him a few days later.)

The music of War and Peace suggests shorthand; melodies are often so brief that they never have time to get up a full head of steam. But the concision helps Prokofiev pack in an awful lot of plot, and those compact tunes can be both ingratiating and insightful, telling us much about the characters.

If Part 2 (the "War" part) does not always sound as inspired as the first, it still succeeds in supporting the story. Some scenes, notably the death of Andrei Bolkonsky, with its faded musical memories of waltzes and love, are superb.

You can't miss, especially in the rousing choral numbers, a bit ofplaying up to Stalin and his cultural ministers (the opera was composed during the bleak days of World War II and faced wary censors), but Prokofiev never really loses his grip on Tolstoy's vision.

Valery Gergiev, director of the Mariinsky Theatre and the Met's principal guest conductor, clearly believes in Prokofiev's gargantuan score. Last Wednesday, his inspired conducting drew out the beauty and color of the opera. (Gianandrea Noseda will conduct the remaining performances.)

The cast is stellar. As Natasha Rostova, the young woman whose immaturity, romantic notions and budding sexuality create a volatile mix, Anna Netrebko shines. With her graceful form and gracefully nuanced movements, she is reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn (who had the role in the 1956 movie); her creamy soprano is capable of exquisite phrasing. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, as Andrei, uses his plush baritone and keen acting skills incisively.

Gegam Grigorian captures the anguish and sensitivity of Pierre Bezukhov in ripe tenor tones. As Madame Akhrosimova, Elena Obraztsova's dusky, sometimes unruly mezzo spices up the ballroom scene delectably. It's impractical to list all the other admirable solo contributions; suffice it to say there really is no weak link.

The choristers are likewise top-notch. (I only wish they hadn't been asked to aerobicize during one of the patriotic choral numbers.) The Met orchestra reinforces its glowing reputation with playing of great warmth and power. And, aside from some repetitive scurrying during the battles, even all of those extras move about the stage effectively, adding to the cumulative richness of an unforgettable production.

War and Peace continues at the Lincoln Center at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, Friday and March 19. Call 212-362-6000.

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