War and Peace, Welsh National Opera, WNO, Cardiff, September 2018

With the recent shenanigans of Russia’s not-so-secret security services, this opera gives form to the history that partly underpins the current regime’s paranoia. Tolstoy’s vast War and Peace, embracing the defeat of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion, expresses the soul of Russia, and Prokofiev’s monumental opera acquired new impetus from the German invasion of 1941. Stalin was keen he complete it, emphasising the patriotism of the Russian people in the face of attempted military invasion.

Natasha and Andrei, all images WNO/ Clive Barda

As a glorious vehicle for the Welsh National Opera Chorus it is very well served by David Pountney’s new production. The vast array of people milling around on stage at the start burst into voice with huge effect, and when the curtain comes down after the final chorus there is a pause before it rises again to reprise the so-called Epigraph heard at the beginning. These were stirring moments extolling the defence of the motherland and the grief and destruction awaiting any enemy incautious enough to invade it.

Natasha and Pierre

In the meantime, some sixty characters come and go, each helpfully specified in the surtitles. All solo singers took more than one role except Mark LeBrocq as a strongly lyrical Pierre of great stage presence, Lauren Michelle as a suitably naïve and enthusiastic Natasha, and Jonathan McGovern as a nobly doomed Andrei. With Adrian Dwyer giving a fine characterisation of the caddish Anatole, brother of Pierre’s dissolute wife Hélène (Jurgita Adamonté), there were numerous fine performances such as James Platt as Natasha’s father Count Rostov, David Stout as Napoleon, and Simon Bailey as a hugely sympathetic Field Marshall Kutuzov, the man whose strategy defeated the invincible Napoleon. Each of these singers took on other roles, and there were some very high quality cameos, including for instance Donald Thomson as Yermolov. A huge success for the entire team under the excellent baton of music director Tomáš Hanus, it will soon be carried to venues in Oxford, Llandudno, Birmingham, and Southampton.

Marshall Kutuzov as battles rage

The clever use of video projections, including some from Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1966 film adaptation, help give a sense of realism to early nineteenth century Russia and Napoleon’s 1812 invasion. Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes allow the staging to mesh the Russian defence to that invasion with World War II, and the sets by Robert Innes Hopkins help convey a sense of real events influencing the lives of the characters. I was less certain about the use of seven dancers, but immediately the dance interlude was over the movement of French soldiers in retreat reminded me of the closing scene in Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet Manon when she hallucinates about the characters from her lost Parisian life.

Burning of Moscow leaves Napoleon with nothing

Numerous other small features give this production great emotional power, making it well worth the journey for any opera fan. A glorious if flawed opera it allows a variety of slightly different versions, but the one presented here makes a fitting finale to David Pountney’s long tenure at WNO. It is not to be missed.

Performances continue at Cardiff, Sept 29; Oxford, Oct 13; Llandudno, Oct 20; Birmingham, Nov 17; Southampton, Nov 24 — for details click here.

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