Psychological Violence: War and Peace at the Bayerische Staatsoper

Prokofiev – War and Peace (Война и мир)

Andrei – Andrei Zhilikhovsky
Natasha – Olga Kulchynska
Pierre – Arsen Soghomonyan
Sonya / Aide de Camp de Murat – Alexandra Yangel
Princess Marie Akrossimova – Violeta Urmana
Peronskaya / Shopkeeper – Olga Guryakova
Count Rostov  – Mischa Schelomianski
Hélène – Victoria Karkacheva
Anatole – Bekhzod Davronov
Dolokhov – Alexei Botnarciuc
Princess Marya – Christina Bock
Old Prince Bolkonsky / Matveyev – Sergei Leiferkus
Balaga – Alexander Roslavets
Matrioshka – Oksana Volkova
Dunyasha – Elmira Karakhanova
Gavrila – Roman Chabaranok
Dr Metivier / Berthier – Stanislav Kuflyuk
Abbé – Maxim Paster
Denisov – Dmitry Cheblykov
Tichon – Nikita Volkov
Fyodor / Kutuzov’s Aide de Camp / Ivanov – Alexander Fedorov
Vasilisa / Mavra Kuzminichna – Xenia Vyaznikova
Trishka – Member of the Tölzer Knabenchor
Kutuzov – Dmitry Ulyanov
Valet / Kaisarov – Alexander Fedin
First General / Gérard – Liam Bonthrone
Second General / Jacquot – Csaba Sándor
Napoleon – Tómas Tómasson
General Beillard / Davoust – Bálint Szabó
Aide de Camp de Prince Eugene – Granit Musliu
Aide de Camp from Napoleon’s Entourage – Thomas Molle
Host / Monsieur de Beausset – Kevin Conners
Ramballe – Alexander Vassiliev
Bonnet – Aleksey Kursanov
A French Officer – Andrew Hamilton
Karatayev – Mikhail Gubsky

Zusatzchor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerischer Staatsopernchor, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Vladimir Jurowski.
Stage director – Dmitri Tcherniakov.

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, Germany.  Sunday, March 12th, 2023.

Mounting a new production of War and Peace at the current time raises significant issues and challenges.  This is a work that consists of big patriotic scenes that call for the destruction of the enemy and the supremacy of the Russian people.  Clearly, it would be problematic at a time when Russia is mounting a war against a sovereign nation to have the massed forces of the Bayerische Staatsoper unquestioningly intone these texts.  At the same time, this is a work that allows a house like this to showcase the considerable talents of its ensemble, as well as the strengths of its superb chorus and orchestra.  There was a need, then, to reconsider the work and to give us a meditation on the nature of war and its effects on people.  Tonight’s director and conductor, Dmitri Tcherniakov and Vladimir Jurowski, took the decision to cut some of the more patriotic sections, either by having them played by the orchestra rather than sung by the chorus, and removed Scene 10 completely.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Tcherniakov sets the action within a single set, which looks like the grand lobby of a theatre, in which a populace shelters, repurposing some of the rows of chairs, or sleeping on makeshift matrasses on the floor.  This is a place with no privacy and nowhere to hide.  It also reminds us that war is a great societal leveller – people from all backgrounds are gathered within this space.  Yet within this environment, Tcherniakov makes us question if what we’re seeing is real or imagined.  There’s a bunker mentality here, that has war as something that happens outside, but is also rehearsed for inside – with athletes practising hand to hand combat in front of us.  I found it intriguing how Tcherniakov compares Andrei’s initial thoughts of wanting better days, with the way that the people seemed to force themselves into a frenzy at the start of the War section.  It was incredibly striking, the house was plunged into darkness, the curtain opened, and from nowhere a massed chorus of what seemed like hundreds yelled at us, all of them seemingly possessed with madness, extolling the aggression of war.  It struck me that Tcherniakov was saying that war is something that is psychological, something that people can be whipped up into a frenzy over, but that is also highly illogical.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

This was exemplified in the figure of General Kutuzov.  Rather than a strong military general, he’s incarnated as a wandering man in a dirty vest, the reality behind his stirring words much more prosaic.  It was interesting how he imposed himself on a floral memorial, putting himself above the people as an object to be honoured and worshipped – the reality of a war leader being a lot less glamourous than the folklore suggests.  Tcherniakov’s staging is most certainly ambitious – the cast is enormous and every single person on that stage is a real, flesh and blood personality.  The ambition is there and he rises to it, the intricacy of the personenregie with such an extensive group of people is seriously impressive.  Yet, I left the theatre tonight in great admiration of the work of the production, but feeling rather cold.  There’s an ambivalence to Tcherniakov’s vision.  He gives us a people, imprisoned, who long for peace, yet are unable to stop the tide of war inflicted on them by others.  In a way, he makes us aware of how susceptible we are to being manipulated and how war is something both psychological, yet also very tangible – not least in the cold-hearted killings on stage, but also in the death of Andrei, the dreamer who was lost to war. 

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Musically, one could hardly ask for better.  In this huge cast there was not a single weak link; indeed, the quality of the singing was outstanding.  Jurowski led a reading that was rhythmically vital, inspiring the Staatsorchester to playing of astounding accuracy.  In this extensive score, there wasn’t a single fluffed entry or stray note from the orchestra all night.  The string sound was lean yet muscular and the brass offered playing of strength – it was very loud.  The hugely augmented chorus sang with power and precision, along with focused tone – no war of vibratos here.  Jurowski’s tempi were sensible, pulling back to allow Andrei and Natasha to indulge in their reveries, pushing forward with inexorable military force where required.  There was a dedication from all on stage and in the pit tonight that felt that it swept the evening along. 

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Andrei Zhilikhovsky sang his namesake in an exceptionally handsome baritone, firm and even from top to bottom.  He phrased with generosity, giving us long, endless lines that were both tender and introspective.  The top seems to defy gravity, soaring up there with ease.  A major assumption from a singer to watch.  Olga Kulchynska sang Natasha in a crystalline soprano with an equally easy top.  There was a beguiling beauty to the tone, combined with a hint of metal within, that made her instrument extremely distinctive in sound.  Arsen Soghomonyan brought a muscular tenor to Pierre’s music.  His is a voice that seems capable of anything that Prokofiev could throw at it.  It was amazing to read in his bio that he sang for over a decade as a baritone, because his top sounds so reliable and resonant, with never a hint of strain.  This was also the case for Bekhzod Davronov as Anatole, who sang his music in a well-placed, focused tenor, with impressive ease on high, the voice rising, seemingly without limits.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

It feels injudicious to single out singers in the rest of the cast, but this would end up being an oversize review if I were to discuss every performance individually.  What a pleasure it was to see the great Sergei Leiferkus and Violeta Urmana on the Nationaltheater stage.  Leiferkus sang his roles in his distinctive, almost acidic baritone, the text always forward.  Urmana brought that beauty of warmth in the middle that is her trademark, while also displaying a juicy resonance at the bottom, the registers always even.  Stanislav Kuflyuk brought a handsome baritone to his music, and Granit Musliu made so much of little with an equally handsome tenor in his roles.  Olga Guraykova was great value as Peronskaya, demonstrating some impressive dance moves, and a fruity mezzo.  Dmitry Ulyanov brought a massive bass to the role of General Kutzov, the voice was huge with resonance to spare, and admirably even in emission.  As I mentioned above, in this huge cast there was not a single weak link.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Tonight was an evening that showed this house at its very best.  It was musically exceptional, the house forces on blazing form and the entire cast absolutely superb.  Tcherniakov has given a staging of intricate detail and is a major achievement for him and all involved with the production.  This was a show that left me with immense admiration, yet also left me feeling curiously unfulfilled, despite the total and absolute mastery of everyone involved.  In a way, I had wished that Tcherniakov had perhaps been more radical in the way that he viewed the work.  Instead, he has given us an evening based very much on the power of suggestion, that challenges us to think and tie the threads together.  This is, without doubt, a major achievement for the house.  The audience greeted the entire cast with an enormous ovation at the close – particularly for Zhilikhovsky and Kulchynska who took her curtain call wearing a t-shirt with the colours of the Ukrainian flag, while chorus members held a Ukrainian flag aloft.  It was a moment of exceptional emotion. 

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