WNO War and Peace review

DAVID POUNTNEY'S PRODUCTION BLASTS YOU INTO SUBMISSION

WAR AND PEACE
Welsh National Opera at Birmimgham Hippodrome ****


"The forces of twelve European nations have invaded Russia. The enemy has ravaged our cities, ransacked our houses, slain our children and our fathers". If the opening Epigraph of Prokofiev's opera War and Peace sounds drastic on paper, just imagine it being hurled at you by the full force of Welsh National Opera's orchestra – and of course, their world-beating chorus. With its very first barrage, David Pountney's production blasts you into submission, and for much of its four hour length, there's no letting up. "It's basically Stalin – the Musical" commented my companion

Pountney certainly knows how to use the visual power of Soviet propaganda – which, at the time of its conception in the 1940s, was exactly what this opera was. Epic battle scenes from the 1966 Mosfilm movie of Tolstoy's novel are projected behind the single basic set, dwarfing the live performances in front of them. A troupe of jackbooted dancers pirouette across the stage with machine guns, like something out of a North Korean Olympic opening ceremony. It's as massive and as overwhelming as its subject.

Yet from it all – and just as Tolstoy and Prokofiev intended – believable human beings emerged: Jonathan McGovern as an ardent, dignified Andrei Bolkonsky, Lauren Michelle's touching, radiant-voiced Natasha, and – above all - Mark LeBrocq, whose kindly, awkward but sensitively-sung Pierre Bezhukov got the whole audience on side with his humiliation of Adrian Dwyer's caddish Anatole. David Stout clearly enjoyed his brief scene as Napoleon, but Simon Bailey's Marshall Kutuzov really stole Act Two – a scarred, rasping old wardog with a twinkle in his one remaining eye.

Along with the rest of a huge ensemble cast, they draw you in, sprawling though War and Peace is and however dubious some of its politics (not that Prokofiev had much choice). Tomáลก Hanus and his orchestra found the delicacy and warmth of the extended ball scenes in Act One, as well as unleashing hell when Boney invades. Did I say that the chorus knocks you backwards? You emerge, thrilled, uplifted and emotionally battered – but it's still quicker than reading the novel.

Richard Bratby

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