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Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, November 2009

Prokofiev’s War and Peace was impressively performed at the Paris Opera in 2000. Everyone in the huge cast sings strongly, with the Americans Nathan Gunn (Prince André) and Robert Brubaker (Pierre) worthy of special mention, as are Olga Guryakova (Natasha) and Anatoli Kotcherga (Field Marshal Kutuzov). Gary Bertini paces the work splendidly. Prokofiev and his wife adapted Tolstoy’s epic novel into thirteen scenes (seven devoted to peace, six to war). The composer later replaced the comparatively weak overture with a choral “epilog” that is printed at the beginning of the score, but in this performance is logically placed between the peace and war scenes. The opera was started just weeks before the Germans invaded Russia; patriotic arias and choruses were in order, although it is difficult to imagine what the composer would have done with the war scenes instead. The “peace” scenes are graceful, with dances (an especially haunting waltz) and love music, but also dramatic music depicting Natasha’s near-abduction. The war scenes are somewhat less inspired, although there is a marvelous scene with Napoleon and Kutuzov has great arias. The twelfth scene portrays André, mortally wounded, with Natasha nursing him until he dies. The music refers to the “peace” scenes where they fell in love. Critical opinion holds that this scene is weak because of the power of the “war” scenes that preceded it; TC disagrees, finding it very moving, musically and dramatically. The work, perhaps, is too sprawling (this performance lasts 210 minutes) to be a great dramatic opera, but it certainly maintains the epic qualities of the novel, quite a feat for even a composer as skilled as Prokofiev. The production is brilliant and clearly reflects the action. Sound (all three formats) and video are excellent. There are 80 minutes of fascinating bonuses about the making of the DVD.

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Fanfare, November 2009

Given its editorial muddles, its complex plot (you really have to know Tolstoy’s novel to follow it), and its extravagant performance demands (not least of which is 72 named solo parts in the unabridged version), War and Peace has been documented surprisingly often on disc. Still, if I were going to limit myself to a single recording, it would probably be this one, originally issued on TDK a few years back, but now reappearing on Arthaus. A millennial celebration clearly intended to flaunt the capacities of the Paris National Opera, it more than lived up to the demands of the occasion…Stefan Margita gives us a good sense of Anatol’s mixture of bravado and cowardice…Guryakova, making her Paris Opera debut—and, simultaneously, her debut in any work by Prokofiev (she’s gone on to considerable success as Polina in The Gambler)—is a magnificent Natasha. She’s a bit strained at the very beginning, but she’s increasingly nuanced as the performance moves on: radiant at the scene 2 ball, heartbreakingly embarrassed by Prince Bolkonsky’s rudeness in scene 3, and reaching her interpretive peak in scene 6. That scene, where her elopement is thwarted, is really her most difficult moment on stage. Granted, her reappearance during Andrei’s death scene (scene 12) may more readily and unequivocally draw our tears, but it requires less nuance from the singer: like Mimi’s death scene in La bohème, it’s almost guaranteed to work. Scene 6, the emotional highpoint of the first part, more fully challenges a singer’s range. Despair, bravado, confusion, frustration, disbelief—Guryakova so poignantly captures the psychological conflict that Natasha’s suicide attempt, which can seem abrupt, here emerges as the natural climax of the scene.

Nathan Gunn is equally impressive as Andrei—and, as is made clear during his trajectory from recollection to despair to exaltation in the opening scene, he is equally attuned to the emotional twists and turns of his part. Robert Brubaker makes an excellent Pierre, bringing out both his awkwardness and (especially in his confrontation with Anatol) his underlying strength. The smaller parts, many of which are doubled, are consistently cast as well, with Mikhail Kit making an especially strong impression as Natasha’s father, and Vassili Gerello bringing out Napoleon’s underlying instability with tremendous subtlety.

In these days of increasingly director-driven high-concept productions, it’s good to see one that so supports the work’s original ethos (indeed, one section of scene 8 seems inspired by Soviet poster art). Likewise, in these days of increasingly bare-bones productions…it’s good to see one with so much visual interest. Yes, John Macfarlane’s sets are fairly simple: the main backdrop to part II clearly evokes fire, but it’s sufficiently abstract to fulfill any number of purposes, especially given the sensitive lighting design. But, except for the Moscow buildings of scene 11 (which would not be out of place in a production of West Side Story), the sets serve the music well; and Nicky Gillibrand’s period-appropriate costumes (700 of them, according to the bonus documentary) are sumptuous. François Roussillon’s video direction is expert—and while I’m sure that Blu-ray would provide more detail in the big scenes especially, the visual quality is generally excellent. As is so often the case, the sound has more focus on the stereo tracks, more depth in surround sound (both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.0 are provided).

Were this a purely audio recording, it would take third place, right behind Rostropovich and Melik-Pashayev, well ahead of the surprisingly schlumpy Gergiev. But if there’s any opera that relies on stage spectacle to make its impact, it’s War and Peace—so, as I said, this emerges as the catalog’s front runner.

Kevin Filipski
Times Square, May 2009

Prokofiev’s mammoth masterpiece War and Peace receives a hit-or-miss Paris production in 2000 by director Francesca Zambello, highlighted by the composer’s awesomely dramatic music and a terrific cast led by Nathan Gunn, Mikhail Kit and Olga Guryakova (lone extra: two-part, 80-minute “making-of” documentary).

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