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W.S. Habington
La Scena Musicale, August 2004

On paper, War and Peace must appear to be an impossible opera. Any attempt to paraphrase Tolstoy's epic novel should be doomed from the start. But the scheme of 13 scenes devised by the composer and his wife, Myra Mendelssohn, and divided as two parts, peace, then war, is potentially an effective treatment. All that is needed to perform the work is an opera house of vast resources to cope with the 70 individually sung parts and a chorus of legion strength. Happily, the Bastille took up the challenge to celebrate the millennium in March 2000. This DVD set is a triumphant memento of that grand occasion. An excellent video version of War and Peace from the Kirov Opera under Valery Gergiev was a staple of the Philips catalogue for years on VHS. It is now available on DVD (Kultur D2903). Without the example of the St Petersburg production, the Paris staging might not have been as good as it is. Yet clearly, the newcomer is superior in every respect except for live horses on stage (Kirov: 2, Bastille: 0). The credit for this mighty achievement goes to the US-born, multi-lingual director, Francesca Zambello, and conductor Gary Bertini. Zambello's work is revealed in a fascinating accompanying 79-minute documentary. With marvelous sets by John MacFarlane, exquisite costumes by Nicky Gilibrand, atmospheric lighting by Dominique Bruguière and inspired choreography (including period infantry foot drill) from Denni Sayers, Zambello knows what she wants and gets it. She approaches the opera as an established masterpiece while the Kirov performance seems to be straining for recognition. And a masterpiece it certainly is. The Bastille brought in an impressive cadre of Slavs, including Mikhail Kit, Anatoli Kotcherga and Vassily Gerello (who reprises his Kirov role as Napoleon). Olga Guryakova turns in a perfect performance as Natasha. Two American singers, baritone Nathan Gun (Prince Andrei) and tenor Robert Brubaker (Pierre Bezoukhov) acquit themselves well among the Russian horde--not least because they look their parts and act them with consummate skill. Recommended with flaming enthusiasm.

Rad Bennet
Home Theater Sound, April 2004

"The Paris Opera production is replete with magnificent voices. Seldom have I heard so many incredible male singers in one production. Nathan Gunn is dashing and virile as Andre, with a well-focused baritone that would do as well in Italian repertory as Russian. Robert Brubaker's ringing, lyrical tenor voice and expressive face succeed as Count Pierre Bezoukhov. Vassili Gerello is a decisive Napoleon -- in this opera, not without some compassion. But Anatoli Kotcherga, as field marshal Kutusov, steals the show. His aria at the end of scene 11 is spectacular. His magnificent bass voice seems to roll from everywhere and have no end, all with perfect focus, diction, and dramatic insight...Olga Guryakova as Natasha brings freshness to this role with singing that is radiant, lyrical, and exceptionally appealing. Her duet with Sonia at the beginning of the opera is one of the high points of this production. The chorus and orchestra are, in a word, splendid. The chorus must carry most of the second part and does so impressively. The orchestra plays like the greatest pit band in the world. Conductor Gary Bertini gets the best out of everyone and leads with spirit and insight...The video is anamorphic widescreen, focused well with good detail. The video direction is super. The camera is always where it should be and close-up reaction shots in crowd scenes provide greater understanding than would be afforded a member of a live audience. The sound is first-rate; it's about the best I have heard for a live opera recording. The orchestra is recorded with good separation and excellent perspective. The explosions and musket fire in the second part are almost worthy of a good action-adventure movie and are perfectly integrated with the music. The bass is awesome. The first scene of the second part will give your audio system a good workout. Extra features have been slow to come to classical music DVDs. This two-disc set has a great one -- a 79-minute "making of" feature that provides invaluable information on the opera and its production. Rehearsal scenes actually let a viewer know how it was done, and when the dust clears, this documentary spells out in spades just how difficult it was to produce this opera."

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