Sergei Prokofiev died the same day as Josef Stalin: March 5, 1953. Its a coincidence youre more likely to come across in the composers biography than in Stalins.
Because while Prokofiev barely figures in Stalins life, his own was profoundly, inalterably changed by Soviet rule. Among the many documents of that is his War and Peace, a work contorted through forced revision into strident propaganda. Rarely performed, it opened this week on the anniversary of their deaths at the Bavarian State Opera here in a darkly urgent and sensitively executed new production haunted by the war in Ukraine.
Prokofiev began to adapt Tolstoys novel an expansive portrait of Moscow society around Napoleons 1812 invasion of Russia, and a study in the scattered forces that shape history in the early years of World War II, as the capital was under threat from another Western European dictator. By then, Prokofiev, who had left his homeland after the Russian Revolution, had returned and settled in the Soviet Union.
His work was repeatedly inhibited by the state and subject to censorship, though he also took up nationalistic commissions like the score for Sergei Eisensteins film Alexander Nevsky. And he obliged when ordered to revise War and Peace to include, in its martial second half, rallying choruses and a grandly heroic treatment of General Kutuzov as a stand-in for Stalin.
The edits made for a clumsily uneven work of vestigial intimacy and blunt, bombastic flag-waving. Yet when War and Peace, which premiered in 1946, is staged always an event because of its sheer immensity, with more than 70 characters the score is often received uncritically, even praised.
That is, until Russias invasion of Ukraine called into question the taste of performing it. The Bavarian State Opera, which had been planning this production for several years, was faced with a dilemma. Moving forward would invite controversy; calling it off would play into President Vladimir Putins claims of Russian culture being canceled in the West.
The show went on, but with a rare public defense by the houses leader, Serge Dorny, who said, We must not limit art to the nationality of those that create it, and with more than 30 minutes of cuts to sand down the scores more uncomfortably chauvinistic moments. Ultimately, though, the production staged by Dmitri Tcherniakov and conducted by the State Operas music director, Vladimir Jurowski, both Russian-born and sharply critical of the war would have to speak for itself.
And it does. This War and Peace will go down as a milestone in Jurowskis tenure at the State Opera, and in Tcherniakovs often divisive career. They rise to meet the moment, overcoming the works near untenability not only to argue for its place in the canon, but also to use it as a vehicle for a passionate statement against Russian nationalism and, by extension, Putin himself.
Tcherniakovs staging doesnt retell the story of War and Peace so much as examine Russias condition as a perpetual outsider and oppositional force, the cyclical ways in which it has been attracted to and at odds with the West and the destruction those beliefs have repeatedly brought about, foreshadowed in the productions epigraph, Tolstoys 1904 remarks on the Russo-Japanese War: Again war. Again sufferings, necessary to nobody, utterly uncalled-for; again fraud, again the universal stupefaction and brutalization of men.
The opera is only an impression of the novel. It follows the contrasts of the title, not by juxtaposing the battlefield and the ballroom episodically but rather by dividing them in two. The first part, peace, recounts Natashas engagement to and betrayal of Andrei; the second, war, focuses on the occupation and burning of Moscow. Prokofiev and the librettist, Mira Mendelson (his second wife), reduced the plot to a telling parallel between Natashas losing her way in her lust for Anatole and the French fashions he represents, and Russias falling victim to, then triumphing over, Napoleons invasion. Largely lost in translation is Pierres meandering search for meaning.
In his staging, Tcherniakov brings both strands under the same roof. Literally: He sets the entire opera in the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions in Moscow, an 18th-century building that survived the fires of 1812 and over the years hosted society balls, the music of Tchaikovsky and the show trials of Stalin; it is also where Soviet leaders, from Lenin to Gorbachev, have lain in state. Here, it is densely populated with people sheltering from some kind of conflict, as Ukrainians have in their landmark buildings.
There are cots throughout, and mats for sleeping. People of all classes seem to have come together; some are in jeans or threadbare shirts, while the wealthy Pierre wears shined leather shoes, a Barbour coat, and a wool sweater and hat. Yet no matter their background, they unite to pass the time first days, then weeks, then months. They throw a New Years ball with sashes made from newspaper, toss rings onto toy swords and race in sleeping bags. Private dramas play out publicly. And patriotic pageants that begin innocently turn violently real, feral and ruled by a drunken slob turned warlord.
Its a drive toward self-destruction that was matched in the pit under Jurowskis baton. He wrangled the eclectic, if erratic, score a succession of talky set pieces in which arias are more like brief soliloquies into a coherent, flowing drama. In the first half, he relished dancing rhythms and shifted between Natasha and Andreis repeating theme, a quintessentially Prokofiev melody of a long lyrical line leaping upward, and buffo interludes from the likes of Anatole and Dolokhov, with unstoppable momentum. Then, in the second part, he resisted overblowing the choruses and orchestral explosions, making room for intricate, at times disturbingly wicked details, and shaping a long crescendo to the end of the climactic 11th scene of Moscows burning and Pierres near execution.
The cast, Jurowski has said in interviews, is nearly an entire Soviet Union; there are singers from Russia, yes, but also Ukraine, Lithuania, Moldova and other former republics. Onstage, they behave like a true ensemble, with well-rehearsed excellence. There are too many soloists to name 43 to be exact but some stand out: Bekhzod Davronovs bright and belligerent tenor as Anatole, Dmitry Ulyanovs commanding bass as Kutuzov, Alexandra Yangels youthful but determined mezzo-soprano sound as Sonya. As Pierre, Arsen Soghomonyan had a by turns sympathetic and, against the mighty wartime orchestra, surprisingly powerful tenor.
Finest among them were Ukrainian soprano Olga Kulchynska as Natasha, with a malleable voice that traced her arc from naive to careworn, and Moldovan baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky as an often aching, persuasively acted Andrei. And the chorus, ever-present, was a tireless and frightening force, even if cut back in this production. For the final scene, typically a lightly veiled paean to Stalin, the voices are eliminated entirely, replaced by an onstage brass band.
With that change, though, the ending is still troubling. Andrei, who traditionally is wounded in battle and forgives Natasha as he dies, here shoots himself in the chest, mourning the loss of his beloved Russia as he knew it a self-made victim of the violent nationalism taking hold. His death remains touching; Natasha repeatedly tries to lift him, attempting to dance the waltz that played as they fell in love.
But as Andreis lifeless body rests at the front of the stage, ignored as the cast erects an ornate podium for Kutuzov to lie in state, Tcherniakov leaves the audience with a hopeless message. And in doing so he depicts a Russia that, despite internal dissidence and generational shifts in politics, is bound to repeat this scene again.
War and Peace: Through March 18, then again in July, at the Bavarian State Opera, Munich; staatsoper.de. Also streaming at staatsoper.tv.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times