Love, Loss and Spectacle: War and Peace at Welsh National Opera

Prokofiev – War and Peace (Война и мир)

Andrei – Jonathan McGovern
Natasha – Lauren Michelle
Pierre – Mark Le Brocq
Princess Marie Akrossimova / Princess Marya / Aide de Camp de Murat / Mavra Kuzminichna – Leah-Marian Jones
Hélène / Aide de Camp de Prince Eugene / Dunyasha – Jurgita Adamonytė
Anatole / First General / Kutuzov’s Aide de Camp / Bonnet / Barclay – Adrian Dwyer
Count Rostov / Tichon / Berthier / Ramballe / Beningsen – James Platt
Old Prince Bolkonsky – Jonathan May
Jacquot / Second General / General Beillard / Yermolov – Donald Thomson
Dolokhov / Denisov / Napoleon / Raevsky – David Stout
Balaga / Kutuzov / Davoust – Simon Bailey
Sonya / Peronskaya / Kondratyevna – Samantha Price
Servant / Dr Metivier – Julian Boyce
Housemaid / Vasilisa – Carolyn Jackson
Valet / Gavrila / Matveyev – Laurence Cole
Joseph – George Newton-Fitzgerald
Matrioshka / Trishka – Sarah Pope
Abbé / Monsieur de Beausset – Joe Roche
Fyodor / Ivanov – Rhodri Prys Jones
Karatayev / Konovitsyn – Gareth Dafydd Morris
Orderly / Gerard / French Officer – Owen Webb
Shopkeeper – Paula Greenwood

Chorus of Welsh National Opera, Orchestra of Welsh National Opera  / Tomáš Hanus.
Stage director – David Pountney.

Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, Wales.  Saturday, September 22nd, 2018.

The opening scene of David Pountney’s new production of War and Peace for Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre certainly made an impact.  As the audience took their seats, the chorus could be seen milling around on stage.  Suddenly, as if from nowhere, the house lights went out and the massively committed WNO Chorus pretty much blasted everyone out of their seats with a paean to Russian fortitude in the time of war.  It certainly made for an arresting start to the evening.  It took a little while for the ear to acclimatize to which language they were actually singing in.  For this production Pountney, also WNO’s Artistic Director, chose the new critical edition of the original version by Katya Ermolaeva and Rita McAllister, in an English translation by McAllister.

Photo: © Clive Barda

The choice of performing the work in English meant that this War and Peace offered a different take on the work than one might have expected – more Anglophone, missing the unique range of vocal colour that the Russian language can bring, particularly as the roles were cast with much lighter voices that one might usually hear.  This version, used with the addition of music from later versions, also felt episodic – yet despite the huge cast, one really did get a sense of individual personalities going on a journey, at least in the case of Jonathan McGovern’s Andrei and Mark le Brocq’s Pierre.

Photo: © Clive Barda

Pountney’s production was utilitarian – for a touring company, necessarily so.  The single set consisted of a wooden semi-circle, within which most of the action took place.  The exception was a wooden panel that descended from the flies, providing the frontage for the Rostov household, as well as later providing the framing for a fascinating image of Andrei laying on his deathbed.  Personenregie consisted of a lot of staring at the front and into the middle distance.  The chorus was moved around efficiently, if unimaginatively.  The constant presence of extras hanging out at the back of the stage meant that there was never any privacy for the characters, even if one did wonder actually what the point of having them there was.  Video, designed by David Hanneke, offered a range of visual accompaniments – images of war taken from Sergei Bonderchuk’s 1966 epic, Voyna i Mir, as well as tasteful images of open windows and various other bits of abstract imagery.  Certainly, the packed stage with choristers waving flags looked impressive, but never quite shook off the sense of a mass of people being moved around efficiently, rather than a living, heaving mass of individuals.   What Pountney gave us was a perfectly serviceable piece of theatre that allowed the cast to bring their own performances to the fore.

Photo: © Clive Barda

Chief among these was the augmented WNO Chorus.  They sang their hearts out, filling the house with a huge wall of sound.  Their commitment was never in doubt and they had clearly been intensively prepared by Stephen Harris.  Blend was generally good, although there were a few individual voices sticking out among the tenors and a few, not inauthentic, strident vibratos among the sopranos.  The accuracy of their pitching was most impressive and the full-throated fervour with which they sang was quite inspirational.  Tomáš Hanus led a pulsating reading from the pit, always conscious of the score’s rhythmic impulsiveness, but similarly bringing out the delicacy in the light, floated string writing where required.  The orchestra played extremely well for him – the brass in particular playing with remarkable accuracy.  A special mention also for some wonderfully piquant clarinets.  The strings, other than a few passing moments of sour intonation, also acquitted themselves well.

Photo: © Clive Barda

The principal roles were always honourably taken – and occasionally even more than that.  McGovern’s Andrei gave a great deal of pleasure.  Uniquely among the principals, he sang the text with great feeling, digging deep to bring out meaning.  There was a sincerity and honesty to his singing that I found genuinely moving – particularly so in a death scene that was sung, and acted, with introspective generosity.  The role is a good fit for his youthful, handsome baritone, especially in the English translation.  There was a slight tendency to over-sing in the opening scene, but as the evening progressed, the voice relaxed and flowed nicely.  A notable debut for this very fine young singer.  Lauren Michelle’s Natasha was interesting.  There’s a warmth to the middle of the voice that I found quite beguiling.  The top, however, tends towards a metallic stridency that tended to depart from the pitch established in the orchestra.  Still, she’s certainly an engaging stage presence.  Le Brocq’s Pierre was sung with dignity.  He negotiated the awkward passaggio-crossing intervals with ease but the top lacked the firmness and amplitude that the voice had further down.  He did manage to create a three-dimensional and vivid portrayal through his sensitive stage presence and keen diction.

Photo: © Clive Barda

The remainder of the cast demonstrated the depth of talent available to the company.  Adrian Dwyer’s Anatole was sung in a nicely insinuating light lyric tenor.  James Platt was a warm and generous presence in his multiple roles.  David Stout sang Napoleon in a fine and rounded bass-baritone.  Simon Bailey sang Kutuzov’s big number with dignity, although that typically expansive Russian tone was missing from his slightly dry, narrow bass.  It would be impossible to discuss the remaining roles in depth but they were always sung accurately and with personality.

Photo: © Clive Barda

Tonight was without doubt a magnificent showcase for the WNO Chorus and Orchestra who gave everything they had to a performance that filled the house with generosity and warmth.  This wasn’t a particularly Russian War and Peace – the lighter voices and the use of the English translation made it as much a re-interpretation of the piece as an interpretation of it.  We were given a serviceable staging that made much of little and that also allowed the principals to create their individual characters.  It’s a beast of a show, one that really does offer a tremendous opportunity for this excellent company to show what they can do.  The singing was always honourable, and in McGovern’s Andrei displayed a singer of serious potential.  The capacity audience gave the cast a warm and generous ovation at the close.  It is without doubt an evening in which all involved sang from the heart with soul and spirit.

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