Wednesday, 31 December 2014

War, peace and love

This last post of the year looks forward to 10 hours of War and Peace on Radio 4 tomorrow, but mainly back to the last great treat of 2014. Love is the only way to describe what so many of us feel about Tolstoy's complicated creatures, and how we respond, too, to Prokofiev's gift for homing in on scenes and lines to bring them fully to life in operatic terms. Tough love is how I might define Graham Vick's second interpretation of the opera 23 years on from the groundbreaking 1991 Mariinsky production; as he told us when he came to talk to my Opera in Depth students at the Frontline Club, he'd been romantic and relatively young when he first tacked the epic then, and now he saw both Natasha's near-breaking on the corrupt society wheel as well as Andrey's endless sufferings in a much harsher light. Production shots here of the 2014 Mariinsky War and Peace, starting with Aida Garifullina's Natasha and Andrei Bondarenko's Andrei falling in love at the ball, by Natasha Razina and Valentin Baranovsky.

We got to see this endlessly resourceful and perfectly realised take on Tolstoy and Prokofiev as an extra to my ten classes, making extra space from 12.30 to 4.30pm on a mid-December Monday. It was the final highlight of a year which I and my Arts Desk colleagues have chronicled, live-wise, in as much detail as we could: concerts round-up here, opera top 11 here.

All bar one of the students were knocked for six by Vick's special putting-it-together, even without subtitles (those will, of course, appear, when the DVDs are released some time next year, as they must be). It was going to take a superlative portrayal of Natasha to budge my allegiance to one of the greatest singing actresses of the last three decades, Yelena Prokina, but the less tutored and polished Aida Garifullina's performance is just that, in a slightly different way. Graham had spoken of her being, well, just a natural: even if she doesn't always know what to do with her body and hands, the face speaks every emotion - and her beauty even surpasses Netrebko's back in 2000; we had better beware that an oligarch doesn't lock her up in an ivory tower. Which would be a loss as the voice, too, is a beauty, warm and vibrant, as telling as Prokina's of what she's singing about.

The first part, which Prokofiev was at one point urged to call Natasha Rostova, charts her enchanted falling in love with Andrey followed by the unnatural pressures under which she's put in their year-long separation. Vick gives us the moonshine as wonderfully as Konchalovsky did in 2000, all the more heart-flipping since we first see Andrei Bondarenko's Prince contemplating suicide before the voice in the night air turns his thoughts to spring again. 'One must believe with all one's soul in the possibility of happiness' runs the Tolstoyan line on the blackboard.

In the next scene he's lost years, smiling, rapt in love as who wouldn't be with this Natasha at the ball?

Then the fall. Graham was right: in a contemporary setting, it's all the more disturbing. In today's society, the feckless set led by Helene and Anatol would be off of their faces on cocaine, as we see the lady of the beautiful shoulders in the washroom of Scene Four and the lads in the planned abduction scene.

For Vick, it's all about consumerism, the mores of the I Want It Now generation; fur coats suggested by gypsy Matryosha's sacrifice of hers dangle spookily from the heights, to be predictably replaced by hanging corpses once war begins, a billboard offsets the tank that's mostly present, while Anatol's limo provides a useful prop for Pierre to bang his head against and slam the door into him. It's good to see the rake as a feckless young man: Ilya Selivanov is a superb actor and has a golden tenor voice of the kind the Russians produce in droves.

'War' is harder to pull together, especially if you insist, as Gergiev still does, on the complete score (for me, Tim Albery's ENO production provided the best solution to judicious cuts, shedding most of the later Soviet ballast). Vick's fluent parade wings us brilliantly from suggestions of the Ukrainian conflict - it remains a miracle how in today's Russia he got away with a socialist realist poster of happy peasants in yellow, white and blue, later bespattered  -

- to the canonization of Kutuzov (veteran Gennady Bezzubenkov), unpacked from a museum crate

and holding the council of war at Fili with other Russian commanders in 1812 costume ( '450,000 dead' is chalked up on the blackboard). Compare Vick's tableau with a late 19th century painting.

Natasha's scene with the dying Andrey is fascinating to compare with the 1991 version, which was a proper deathbed scene. One of my students didn't get the Carousel idea of Andrey as spirit trying to communicate with a bewildered Natasha in worker's gear; I thought it was shatteringly moving and gravely beautiful, since both protagonsts are remarkable singer-actors ('I will no longer exist' is the Tolstoy phrase he's chalked up here).

The open door to death is all the more striking now that (2/1) I've heard the radio dramatization, which reminds us that Andrei talks of it in his last days, and how a spiritually exhausted Natasha longs to go through it later in the novel. Here she remains onstage through the final fallout, a further demand successfully carried by Garifullina the actress, to end up sitting opposite Pierre at a bare table in the final moments.

No superlatives are too much for what's been achieved here, least of all in 2014 St Petersburg. In short, Vick's panorama eludes being tied to any one war, any particular era, just as in his Birmingham Khovanskygate (it even has elements of the audience integration so crucial to that once-in-a-lifetime experience). Some see this as faulty vagueness, but it's a lot harder to bring off than one dogged centripetal idea.

I didn't watch the livescreening in the summer simply because I was sure it had to become some sort of nationalistic pageant. But that was to reckon without the trust placed in Vick by Gergiev, who goes a small way towards redeeming his rant against the Ukraine and his unapologetic, unthinking equation of homosexuals with paedophiles (for which, come the end of 2014, he's clearly never going to apologise). Clearly a divided soul who's signed a Faustian pact, but when he conducts well, as he does here, there's still a touch of genius.

At the same time as the first term's classes came to a close, I got to the end of reading my first book of military history, Dominic Lieven's Russia Against Napoleon. The reality probably lies somewhere between Tolstoy's view of history as chaotic flux and Lieven's chessboard, but the facts as Lieven arranges them are an interesting counterbalance.

The biggest importance of the history is that it restores an overview based on research in Russian as well as French archives, one in which the French retreat from Moscow in 1812 is only the first stage in a strategy to push them back as far, as it turned out, to Paris in the campaigns of 1813-14. And the movers behind all this are seen to be Alexander I, whom Tolstoy gave scant credit for planning ahead, and Barclay de Tolly (striking how many non-Russian names figure in the high command of the Russian army - how confusing when they have French names like De Langeron).

Even so, old Kutuzov remains a hero of sorts for his very restraint: a seasoned fighter knew better than to waste soldiers in unnecessary battles and skirmishes. His response was partly pragmatic - without an army, there would be no Russian nation - but it also stands in opposition to the younger hotheads who thought they'd be hailed as heroes for sacrificing whole divisions in impulsive onslaughts. But how like a nursery-room battlefield with toy soldiers Lieven makes so much of it sound: thousands are lost in this or that fight, and if that also means wounded and deserters, it's still shocking in its casualness and frequency.

Ultimately, the real truth lies with the human perspectives of Pierre or Nikolai Rostov on the battlefield: what on earth is all this for? By the way, in looking for images I was surprised to find so many 're-enactments' by Vereshchagin, one of the great war artists, probably most famous for his pyramid of skulls.

This is such a good cue for the Napoleon-at-Borodino scenes in the novel and opera, where by the way the sole survivor of the 1991 cast, Vasily Gerello, was still in splendid voice in 2014 and even more magnetic.

I'll be curious  to hear what remains tomorrow in Timberlake Wertenbaker's 10-hour adaptation on BBC Radio 4*. I slightly baulk at 'dramatisation, since I don't see how you can dispense with Tolstoy's authorial voice. They did that the last time, and I gave up sharpish. I may do so again in the morning, but I've cleared a space and taken a long walk this afternoon in anticipation of being glued to the 'wireless' all New Year's Day. The cast is extraordinary and I'm delighted to note a happy reconciliation. Harriet Walter recommended Joel MacCormack fresh out of RADA for my German Romantic Opera Discovery Day in Birmingham, and wonderful he was too:  they're re-united as Drubetskoy mother and son.

That was a highlight of my year, my first ever 'curatorship', and another was Harriet saying yes to recording chapters of War and Peace for my class, not to mention doing so with such spellbinding sensitivity. On which note I can't resist reproducing the alternative shot (with rather than without flash) of a serendipitous meeting just after one such session: another heroine of mine, Birgitte Hjørt Sorensen 'as seen in' Borgen, had dropped in to see Henry IV and they were as happy to meet each other as I was to snap them both.

Happy 2015/ s novim godom/bonne année a tous

*Review now up on The Arts  Desk here .


Susan Scheid said...

It's been quite the year your way, and what good fortune to end with this War and Peace. Your comparison of the council of war scene with the 19th C painting is particularly striking. Felt wistful at seeing the photograph with which you close. We've finished the last of and very much miss our Borgen! To great days ahead!

David said...

And to start 2015 with the BBC Radio 4 adaptation. I knew Timberlake Wertenbaker wouldn't mess up, and I admire the way she's framed it. The Battle of Borodino is just over, now there's an hour and a quarter break, and so we're eight hours down and two to go. Meanwhile J sits in the other room re-watching episodes of RuPaul's Drag Race...warmest greetings to you both from us both.

wanderer said...

Happy New Year David, and J, and everyone close to you, and is it too much to simply wish for more peace and less war?

David said...

Likewise to you and K, wanderer, with hopes for a second European meeting. Of course we can and do wish, but in the present climate I fear we won't get. The figures re the Syrian death list surely mean that something has to be done, but there's no getting round Russia and China on the security council, it seems.

I hope most of all there isn't a patch in 2015 such as there was in the middle of 2014 when one could only weep at the accumulation of hideous news on all fronts.

David Damant said...

I do not - quite seriously - think that there is any hope, and the reason is the social networks, internet. computers, mobile phones etc. Now every sinister organisation or regime in the world can organise its plots to attack and kill, and every individual nut case can be excited into fulfilling dreams of power through murder, whether by identifying with a cause or not. And if we in the West intervene we shall be hated for using our power - seen as a hostile ideology by many of the parties, even those we hope to help

Add to this the fact that many millions of people in poor and hopeless countries who for centuries did not know what they were missing now do - so that millions will press and press to escape their misery to Europe, Australia etc. And as there are far too many millions how can we stop them?

The Evil Genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back

David said...

I share most of your pessimism, David, but I see at the same time the infinite virtues of the internet in rousing movements for good as well as for evil (the list of successes re Change.Org was quite impressive).

It seems hard to believe there is less war in the world now than in the past, but then I guess half of it has a better concept of 'never again' and the other half is stirring to atrocities and psychosis again.

Now, anyone listen to the radio War and Peace yesterday? I'm just about to post my review on The Arts Desk. Admirable job, for the most part.

Susan Scheid said...

David: I was just about to ask you how you were finding the radio War and Peace, then saw that you've given it high marks here and on TAD. I'm hoping it will become an audio CD set (we can't get the podcasts here), though I see the episodes will be available for a while on the website, so there's a chance I can get to it that way.

Glad to see, also, your high marks for the Pevear/Volokhonsky War and Peace. When you first mentioned it, I picked it up to have on hand for my next re-read, when it comes. Meanwhile, I've just finished the same team's translation of Dr. Zhivago (which I realized, to my dismay, I'd never read!). I found it very fluid and readable, but of course wondered what you might think of it as a translation. Also read Safe Conduct, and I can't help but think that could use a better translation. Very choppy reading, and it's hard to believe it would be that way in the original Russian.

Back to your TAD review--and you've noted it here, as well, yes, the thing that does tend to suffer greatly in film or radio adaptations is the authorial voice, so critical with War and Peace--and also Pasternak. After finishing Dr. Z. I went back to the available films, knowing they couldn't possibly measure up, but curious to see what they'd made of the book. So far, halfway through the newer one, the verdict is, and no surprise: pretty faces and mindless dreck. (I remember your dislike of the earlier BBC dramatization of War and Peace; we enjoyed it, I'll have to say. It was certainly the best of company on our long drive up to and back from Maine one summer.)

David said...

The film of Dr Zhivago is about as far from the truth of the book as any I've seen, Sue. Actually maybe I'd expressed disappointment at revisiting the first half of the '72 BBC War and Peace because Morag Hood is SO much the phoney Infant Phenomenon as Natasha. But she gets much better, and recently, when we were halfway through classes, I returned to the set and admired the handling of Borodino. Hopkins is almost as definitive a Pierre for me as Nicola Pagett is an Anna Karenina (in that case, I saw her before I read the book).

Re translations, I think we had the discussion when I said I wondered how most reviewers KNEW what a good translation was when they weren't conversant with the original language. And I can't claim to have read Tolstoy in Russian (Pushkin, Turgenev and Chekhov, yes). But Pevear's intro is so convincing about why one must repeat a word when Tolstoy does, very often sometimes in the space of a paragraph.

Time to read Zhivago again, methinks... Remind me about Safe Conduct, it doesn't ring a bell.

Susan Scheid said...

Agreed, absolutely, on Dr. Z film v. book. (I didn't say this clearly, but I went in without illusions on that, just curiosity of a weird sort.) Yes, I do very much remember our exchange about translations; had it much in mind in thinking about what I was reading; that is, how can I tell if it's faithful, well I can't, but something really does seem to be wrong with the Safe Conduct text, and I'm thinking it might be the translation. Yes, Pasternak can be elliptical, to say the least, but I'd be surprised if his prose in Russian is so lumpy. Safe Conduct was new to me; it's a memoir of sorts. PS: Very glad to learn of the "Hopkins" War and Peace, which I may have to add to my "collection" at some point. Meanwhile, I've discovered BBC4 is rebroadcasting a segment of the new one each Saturday 4PM our time, so that may offer us chance to both listen in "the old fashioned way." And . . . as so often is the case, I would have missed this entirely had you not noted it, so many thanks.

Susan Scheid said...

Footnote: Just realized, the BBC dramatization we had an exchange about in the past wasn't the '72, but this one, in which Simon Russell Beale was Pierre. I was reminded of it by your comment on TAD. Well, the nice thing is we've got a new one that the the person in the absolute best position to know (meaning you) endorses. J loves radio plays, and so I'm hoping we can make this a "family activity" for late afternoons this winter, yay!

David said...

Oh, I see, you meant the previous radio version. As I think I may have mentioned at the time, I happened to tune in when the crucial dialogue between Pierre and the shamed Natasha at the end of Tolstoy's Vol 2, so sensitively done in the opera, was being aired. And hearing SRB and whoever was the Natasha going 'ooh, Natasha', 'ooh, Pierre', without a patronymic in earshot was too much for me.

Like I wrote, if there had been a similar false note at the beginning of this adaptation, I might have abandoned it. But I share none of Simon Schama's cries of 'treachery, falsehood'. I simply accepted that there had to be some kind of narrative frame and thought this was the cleverest way of doing it - even if it does spoil the end of the story for those who think it's all plot.

Certain scenes are still resonating with me, especially the atmospheric evocation of the scene when Pierre goes to see Marya in Moscow after all the toils and discovers that the dark companion beside her is Natasha, much changed - until she smiles. I know you'll respond to it.

I know, too, that I take especial pleasure from a translation which flows, even if I don't know how faithful it's being to the original. Anthea Bell, and her superb rendering of Hoffmann's Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, is a superb example when it comes to German texts.

Margaret Beaton said...

I've loved every minute of War and Peace - both the opera & the brilliant production on R4. I disagreed with Schama & I have read a lot of Tolstoy; - a straight reading would not have worked so well for the average listener.

Happy 2015.

David said...

Same to you, Margaret - looking forward to meeting up again for the Meistersinger term.

I only saw a quotation from Schama in a paper I picked up on the train yesterday; didn't really care to know more. And heaven preserve us from all the tweets etc invited by R4. But I know we are not alone in our admiration.