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A major local premiere

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
10/10/2008 -  & 14, 16, 19, 22, 25, 29 October, 1 November
Sergei Prokofiev: War and Peace
Elena Semenova (Natasha) Russell Braun (Andrei), Mikhail Agafanov (Pierre), Mikhail Kit (Kutuzov), Vassily Gerello (Napoleon), Larisa Kostiuk (Hélène), Lauren Segal (Sonya), Peter Barrett (Denisov, General Rayevsky), Alain Coulombe (Count Rostov, Tikhon), Sonya Gosse (Maria Dmitryevna), Norine Burgess (Marie Bolkonskaya), John Avey (Prince Nicholas Bolkonsky, General Bennigsen), Oleg Balashov (Anatole, First Lunatic), Peter McGillivray (Dolokhov, General Belliard), Michael Myers (Host, M. de Beausset), Adam Luther (Footman, General Konovnitsyn), Jean Stilwell (Mme. Peronskaya), James Lévesque (Tsar Alexander I), Bruce Schaef (Bolkonsky's Footman), Betty Allsion (Chambermaid), Stanslav Shvets (Bolkonsky's Valet, Captain Ramballe), Gregory Dahl (Balaga, General Yermolov, First German General), Gabrielle Prata (Matryosha, Aide de Camp to Murat), Lisa di Maria (Dunyasha), Michael Ulroth (Gavrila), Ilya Bannik (Métivier, Second German General, French Officer), Michael Sproule (French Abbé), Vadim Zaplechny (General Barclay de Tolly, Platon Karatayev), Alexander Hajek (Andrei's Orderly), French Officer), Sung Chung (Aide de Camp to Kutuzov), Sasha Bataligin (Offstage Voice), Ileana Montalbetti (Mavra), Stephen McClare (Ivanov), Nicolae Raiciu (Second Lunatic, Aide de Camp to Napoleon), Kirk Hansen (Third Lunatic, Guard), Robert Pomakov (Marshall Davout), Michael Barrett (Lt. Bonnet, Aide de Camp to General Compans), Jesse Clark (Aide de Camp to Prince Eugène), Teiya Kasahara (First French Actress), Laura Albino (Second French Actress)
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), Johannes Debus (Conductor) (1 November: J. David Jackson)
Tim Albery (Director), Hildegard Bechtler (Set Designer), Ana Jebens (Costume Designer), Laila Diallo (Choreographer), Thomas C. Hase (Lighting Designer)

Toronto has waited a long time for this production of Prokofiev’s daunting work. It is a co-production with the English National Opera, which staged it back in 2001. Thanks to Tim Albery’s assured direction, not to mention strong musical values, it turns out to be well worth the wait.

To begin with we are confronted with a drop curtain depicting a massive snow-bound soviet-style concrete structure the message of which seems to be “grimness ahead”. The curtain opens on a drably-dressed chorus and we are informed that we are in Moscow in 1941, the year Prokofiev started work on the opera in response to the German invasion. We then hear the stirring choral epigraph (which in other productions has been placed either at the end of Part I or at the beginning of Part II) in which the chorus expresses Russia’s resolve to resist all invaders. The scene then dissolves and we are transported back to 1809 when the story begins.

In addition to the regular surtitles above the stage, the production features explanatory panels at the start of each scene as an aid to understanding how much time has passed and just where each scene takes place. The effect is that of a pageant which is certainly in keeping with Part II. The work is basically a pageant (“War”) preceded by an inconclusive story of romantic entanglements (“Peace”) taking place in an upper-class milieu.

The Four Seasons Centre does not have the awe-inspiring stage machinery that is brought into use in epic works like War and Peace when produced in grander theatres, and the production team does scenic wonders with the available economy of means. Scene changes are cinematically fluid throughout; the most impressive series of changes occurs in Scenes 5 and 6 of Part I when we go from Anatole’s apartment where he is planning the elopement (or quasi-kidnapping) through snowy streets to the house where servants foil the event. In Part II the side panels are used to project impressionistic films of the parading regiments and later the burning of Moscow.

In spite of the attractive period costumes and deft indicators of the opera’s thirteen scenes, some of them set in grand locales, a degree of soviet-style drabness keeps intruding into the look of the piece; one wishes there was less dependence on black, especially given the work’s length (just shy of four hours, with one intermission). The work as a whole has given rise to some degree of audience polarization in Toronto; some find it unendurable, although they seem to be outnumbered by enthusiasts, and one particular point of debate has been the chandelier used to indicate the setting of the ballroom or other grand interior. What we get is actually the picture of a chandelier as opposed to a glittering object hanging from high above the stage: regrettable budget-awareness or perfectly suitable representation?

The work has 61 individual roles assumed by a total of 40 singers. The lead roles are all strongly performed and, amazingly, any weaknesses among the myriad smaller roles are few and fleeting. Elena Semenova fully encompasses Natasha, a role demanding strong singing from a character who has to portray varying degrees of fragility. The role of Prince Andrei seems tailor-made for Russell Braun, and that of Pierre seems a natural fit for Mikhail Agafanov (moreso than the Italian roles he has performed during the past two seasons).

As Marshall Kutuzov, Mikhail Kit portrays a stalwart weariness. At this stage in his career the voice is rather worn and this is entirely in keeping with the character. Vassily Gerello’s Napoleon is by now a well-traveled portrayal and he carries it off deftly.

Outstanding in secondary roles are Alain Coulombe as Natasha’s father and Lauren Segal as the cousin who foils Natasha’s elopement with Anatole. Larisa Kostiuk provides the requisite vocal and visual glamour for the too-sophisticated Hélène and Oleg Balashov the right cutting edge for her louche brother, Anatole. Examples of making a vivid impression in even shorter roles are Gregory Dahl as the coachman, Balaga, and Gabrielle Prata as the gypsy girl Matryosha in the scene where Anatole plans his romantic escapade with the naive Natasha. Peter Barret makes a strong impression in both his roles, that of Denisov in Part I and General Rayevsky in Part II. Also shining in Part II are Vadim Zeplechny as the Russian everyman, Platon, and Robert Pomakov as Marshall Davout, the French commander who arbitrarily spares Pierre’s life.

A group of 14 dancers weave in and out of the great ballroom scene and, when the drama require, singers effortlessly blend in. Such varying focus on individuals within an often crowded stage is a major strength; one might not always know who everyone is (who are all those French generals anyway?), but one is always able to tell who is singing - quite the feat

The lighting is commendable except for a couple of instances in Part II where the faces of Russian crowd are kept in the dark giving them the ominous look of a faceless mob.

German conductor Johannes Debus (he is 32 and looks about half that age) makes an auspicious local debut with his finely-modulated handling of the score.

For those desiring yet more immersion in this work a day long seminar (“Monster Opera”) has been presented, as well as showings of the seven-hour Russian film of the novel (dating from 1967) presented at the Ontario Cinematheque. War and Peace is a major accomplishment for the COC - and, amazingly, Tim Albery’s direction almost makes it look easy.

Michael Johnson



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