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War and Peace

The Metropolitan Opera's production of Prokofiev's lavish opera is the most thrillingly theatrical spectacle of the season. logo
Alexej Markov and Marina Poplavskaya
in War and Peace
(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb has been doing his well-publicized utmost to instill his schedule with aspects of what are more regularly considered the legitimate theater's domain. But ironically, he didn't have to venture farther than the company storage spaces to present the most thrillingly theatrical spectacle of the current opera or Broadway season: the revival of the company's lavish 2002 production of Sergei Prokofiev's War and Peace, based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy, and one of the genre's grandest 20th-century works.

Once again, conductor Valery Gergiev is imbuing the sprawling and stirring four-hour score with lilt and muscularity. George Tyspin's poetic (read abstract) sets are once again on breathtaking view. Tatiana Noginova's costumes for Russians from all societal strata -- not to mention invading French soldiers led by Napoleon in his famous military chapeau -- are impressively arrayed. Most amazingly, director Andrei Konchalovsky pulls off the near miracle of making a cast of 68 soloists and some 300-plus others (plus a white horse and a barnyard animal or two) disperse themselves on the stage as if their teeming arrivals and departures are the most natural thing in the theater world.

Indeed, there aren't many places outside of movie palaces where 40 dancers are able to waltz in Empire gowns or white tie and tails as backdrop for an unfolding ballroom romance and related interpersonal intrigue. There aren't many venues where the depiction of Moscow burning at the hands of fleeing citizens can materialize as such a startling image of gleaming, doomed minarets. There aren't many theaters where so many marching bands can snappily pass through, and where the French army's retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812 would be so convincing. Who cares if cast members might sometimes be exiting one side and running around to reenter on the other to build the astonishing effect?

This is still opera, though, and while the physical mounting may be unassailable, singers with beautiful voices and, ideally, matching acting talents, are needed to make the work connect properly. This War and Peace reincarnation has them -- especially in the debuting Marina Poplavskaya as Natasha Rostova, the woman in the central love triangle completed by the moody Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (the also debuting Alexej Markov) and the bumbling, thoroughly decent Count Pierre Bezukhov (Kim Begley). Progressing from a Juliet-like 15-year-old -- with her own opening balcony scene -- to mature young lady, the delicate featured Poplavskaya has a lovely soprano. However, her voice darkens when Natasha's fortunes turn grimmer during the crushing war that unfolds in the long piece's second act. What distinguishes Poplavskaya's performance is that were she not developing an impressive singing career, she could go far as a dancer. Her lithe movements when twirling with Prince Andrei during a second-act ball are the chief reason for the sequence's enchantment.

As the contemplative man of action, Markov is also touching. He reaches a heartbreak peak when he reconciles with Natasha just before his death, when the ill-fated lovers take a few halting steps to a somber reprise of Prokofiev's second-scene waltz. Begley, who played Pierre back in 2002, is up to the demands of his role, and many others in the ginormous cast -- including Ekaterina Semenchuk, the debuting Ekaterina Gubanova, Vassily Gerello, and Elizabeth Bishop -- give good vocal accounts of themselves. Samuel Ramey, long a house favorite, repeats his role as harrowed Russian Field Officer Kutuzov. He's imposing as ever, but there's a hard-to-overlook wobble in his determined declaiming. As for the five-or-eight-deep chorus; they're charged with the chauvinistic anthems Prokofiev inserted for his own political reasons. While flags wave in the artificially-fashioned breeze, the well-rehearsed contingent gets the point across.

The anthems eventuated because Prokofiev and Mira Mendelson (his wife and co-librettist) were preparing the opera in difficult World War II circumstances; a second retreat from Moscow occurred for the world to watch in newsreels. Tolstoy's war reportage couldn't have been more relevant to the evolving enterprise. Whether that particular message is equally meaningful today is probably not an issue. This sort of mammoth success must be appreciated at any time.

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