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 .