A Tolstoy Adaptation Has New Relevance

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Saturday, June 3, 2023


A Tolstoy Adaptation Has New Relevance
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this opera adaptation of Tolstoy seemed unperformable. But in Munich, it has become an urgent antiwar cry.

by Joshua Barone



MUNICH.- Sergei Prokofiev died the same day as Josef Stalin: March 5, 1953. It’s a coincidence you’re more likely to come across in the composer’s biography than in Stalin’s.

Because while Prokofiev barely figures in Stalin’s 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 Tolstoy’s novel — an expansive portrait of Moscow society around Napoleon’s 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 Eisenstein’s 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 Russia’s 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 Putin’s claims of Russian culture being canceled in the West.

The show went on, but with a rare public defense by the house’s 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 score’s more uncomfortably chauvinistic moments. Ultimately, though, the production — staged by Dmitri Tcherniakov and conducted by the State Opera’s 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 Jurowski’s tenure at the State Opera, and in Tcherniakov’s often divisive career. They rise to meet the moment, overcoming the work’s 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.

Tcherniakov’s staging doesn’t retell the story of “War and Peace” so much as examine Russia’s 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 production’s epigraph, Tolstoy’s 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 Natasha’s 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 Natasha’s losing her way in her lust for Anatole and the French fashions he represents, and Russia’s falling victim to, then triumphing over, Napoleon’s invasion. Largely lost in translation is Pierre’s 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 Year’s 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.

It’s a drive toward self-destruction that was matched in the pit under Jurowski’s 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 Andrei’s 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 Moscow’s burning and Pierre’s 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 Davronov’s bright and belligerent tenor as Anatole, Dmitry Ulyanov’s commanding bass as Kutuzov, Alexandra Yangel’s 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 Andrei’s 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.










Today's News

March 12, 2023

Long-lost letters bring word, at last

Galerie Templon Brussels opens an exhibition of works by French artist Jean-Michel Alberola

Gagosian exhibits Albert Oehlen paintings and Paul McCarthy sculptures

'Jamie Johnson: Growing Up Travelling' on view at Leica Gallery Los Angeles

Rago/Wright announces highlights of their Post War & Contemporary Art sale

Exhibition is dedicated to the work of the Polish pioneer of geometric abstraction Wacław Szpakowski

Karma exhibits recent sculpture by Thaddeus Mosley

Reflex Amsterdam presents 'Eveningside' by Gregory Crewdson

Clars announces highlights of their Spring Design auction

Diego Rivera's America presents in-depth look at legendary works

Solo exhibition of new video works by peter campus opens at Cristin Tierney Gallery

Colby Museum of Art brings together two extraordinary artists: Ashley Bryan and Paula Wilson

Why is a day job seen as the mark of an artist's failure?

Spot, record producer who captured the fury of 1980s punk, dies at 71

Suzy McKee Charnas, writer of feminist science fiction, dies at 83

Greig Burgoyne presents exhibition of newly commissioned work at The Lowry

Wilding Cran Gallery presents a selection of new paintings by Robert Gunderman

Nan Goldin is ready for Oscar night

Michael Tilson Thomas revels in the present with the New York Phil

Review: In 'Misty,' a restless artist grapples with a gentrifying city

A Tolstoy Adaptation Has New Relevance

Review: In this dance, even the nose scratches are choreographed

For rare book librarians, it's gloves off. Seriously.

Understanding Diabetes-Related Retinopathy: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

How to integrate Chat GPT with WhatsApp?




Museums, Exhibits, Artists, Milestones, Digital Art, Architecture, Photography,
Photographers, Special Photos, Special Reports, Featured Stories, Auctions, Art Fairs,
Anecdotes, Art Quiz, Education, Mythology, 3D Images, Last Week, .

 



Founder:
Ignacio Villarreal
(1941 - 2019)
Editor & Publisher: Jose Villarreal
Art Director: Juan José Sepúlveda Ramírez

sa gaming free credit
Attorneys

Royalville Communications, Inc
produces:

ignaciovillarreal.org juncodelavega.com facundocabral-elfinal.org
Founder's Site. Hommage
to a Mexican poet.
Hommage
       

The First Art Newspaper on the Net. The Best Versions Of Ave Maria Song Junco de la Vega Site Ignacio Villarreal Site Parroquia Natividad del Señor
Tell a Friend
Dear User, please complete the form below in order to recommend the Artdaily newsletter to someone you know.
Please complete all fields marked *.
Sending Mail
Sending Successful