Magazine article The Spectator

Epic Saga

Magazine article The Spectator

Epic Saga

Article excerpt

The visit of the Kirov Opera reached its climax with its performances of Prokofiev's War and Peace, though both Mazeppa and Khovanshchina are far greater works, imperfect as they are. War and Peace is so ambitious a project that the composer's nerve in tackling it seems in itself to elicit admiration. And no doubt if one criticises it for failing to live up to Tolstoy's masterpiece, that will be thought to be simply unfair. But a comparison is unavoidable and necessary, since the novel does have a quite special status, as the one wholly successful literary epic of modern times (overlooking the Second Epilogue), and any bid to realise it in some other medium must justify itself by adding something. I can't see that Prokofiev, who with his wife was responsible for the libretto, has done that; indeed, he seems to me to have comprehensively made a middlebrow soap opera, rather than a penetrating and lofty grand opera, out of Tolstoy.

If one didn't know the novel, and tried to infer it from the opera, I think one would end with something on the level of Gone With The Wind, with Prokofiev's heroine much more of a Scarlett O'Hara figure than a Natasha. Everything depends, of course, on the treatment: what Prokofiev gives us in his Natasha is a figure who, characterised by that rather indiscriminate lyrical expansiveness which the composer relied on to keep things going when he had no particular inspiration, is a mere highest common factor of the lovely young girl with ill-defined aspirations and a need to love someone glamorous enough to satisfy them. Tolstoy's extraordinary achievement in taking characters with no special individuating features and giving them the independent life which makes them so startling is exactly negated by the undemanding music of this piece of all-too-successful Socialist Realism. The one figure who is successfully portrayed is Pyotr (Pierre), whose combination of idiosyncrasies seems to have found an answering chord in the composer - or perhaps it was the brilliance with which he was embodied in the performance which I saw.

I went to the second night, Gianandrea Noseda the conductor, who may lack something of Gergiev's intense vitality, but is unemphatically efficient, giving full rein to the opera's varied demands and climaxes. Once more one marvelled at a company that could double-cast, in the central roles, an opera on such a scale. As I suggested, the star, and by some way, was Gegam Grigorian as Pierre; he has exactly the build for the part, he acted just as a myopic person should, he combined the endearing, the foolish, the bewildered and the idealistic, seizing each opportunity, and there are not many, to create a full character. …

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