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S & H Prom Review

PROM 63 Prokofiev, War and Peace Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera/Paul Daniel. Saturday, September 6th, 2003 (CC)


The first performance at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts of Prokofiev’s mammoth opera, War and Peace, was a triumph for ENO. The conductor, Paul Daniel, announced that the performance was dedicated, poignantly, to the ‘radiant’ soprano Susan Chilcott (1963-2003), whose tragic death has made the headlines recently (incidentally, it was her illness that prevented her taking the part of Natasha in ENO’s 2001 production of this very opera).

Of course, the trajectory of the opera is more ‘Peace and War’, as the hedonistic waltz sequences of Part One attest. The ‘Epigraph’ (which begins proceedings), with its explosive brand of patriotism, was confidently despatched by ENO’s well-loved chorus and contrasted superbly with the moonlit May night in which Prince Andrey Bolkonsky pours out his reactions to the springtime skies. Simon Keenleyside was the ardent young lover, his warm tone eloquently supported by the orchestra under Daniel’s sure direction. His reactions to the duet of Natasha and Sonya were entirely convincing, not only vocally but also because he actually looked the part.

Catrin Wyn-Davies established her credentials as Natasha immediately, exhibiting a sure sense of line and also sounding full of the vigour of youth (Stephanie Marshall’s Sonya sounded rather wobbly in comparison). The great ball scene, true Prokofiev through and through, was marvellously despatched. Its dramatic success came from the sense of ensemble that a real opera company such as ENO can give. It all started with Rhys Meiron’s endearingly camp host and built to a successful testimony to ENO’s strength of ensemble. Alas, Wyn-Davies seemed stretched by the louder passages (above forte she had a tendency to screech) and there was even the occasional passage when she was not completely in control of her voice (her extended ‘aside’ at the very end of the third scene, for example). Some scrappiness in the strings ushered in the first orchestral weakness thus far, but it stood out merely because of the prevailing orchestral excellence that surrounded it. Vocally, however, one of the abiding strengths of this performance was already well established by this time: every word was readily intelligible, from the smallest role upwards (and War and Peace has one of the largest cast-lists in all opera).

It was perhaps a surprise to hear Susan Parry in rather wobbly and swoopy form as Hélène, traits further emphasised by the fact she shared a scene with Graeme Danby’s focussed bass as Rostov (he doubled later as Tikhon). John Graham-Hall’s Anatole at first strained at the top of his tenor range and suffered from bleaty vibrato, but subsequently recovered to become richer in timbre.

Clive Bayley’s Dolokhov was another success, beautifully assertive while John Daszak as Pierre Bezhukov was a triumph of confidence. Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ account of Mariya Akhrosiova (Natasha’s godmother) was finely focussed and lovely of tone, although she did sound significantly younger than she looked! The point was, though, that she acted in her voice as well as in her actions. Daniel effectively highlighted any dark undercurrents to the glittering action: we knew instinctively that all this would not last, as the inevitability of war remained inherent in the very music itself.

And how well Daniel introduced the raw sonorities of Scene Eight (the beginning of Part Two: War). Of course the off-stage drums worked particularly well in the Albert Hall, so well suited to spacial effects. A pity, then, that the Napoleon (baritone Peter Sidhom) was not vocally up to the presence required of him. Simon Keenleyside’s Andrey was no less impressive in the trials and tribulations of War. Tormented, every word came through. Just add a more Russian timbre to the voice, and all would have been perfect. A shame, then, that later, in his illness, he failed to sound semi-delirious, as the score demands, weakening the dramatically powerful scene with Natasha.

And how wonderful to see Willard W. White’s magisterial Kutuzov, vast of voice (although perhaps in tone showing something of the ageing process) – when White and Keenleyside were together, the result was absolutely spell-binding. Later, Kutuzov’s acceptance of his responsibility in war and his order to retreat was superbly imperial; his outcry (‘Oh when shall we see the end of this terrible nightmare?’) was entirely believable.

Despite the excellence of many of the soloists, it is difficult to decide who the true stars of the evening were: the large, focussed chorus (the jewel in ENO’s crown, surely), or the orchestra, who under Daniel’s direction seemed to follow every strand of Prokofiev’s complex train of thought, and who attended to all of the light and shade of this endlessly fascinating, miraculous score. To highlight anyone’s playing is surely churlish, but perhaps a word or two should be reserved for that underdog of the orchestra, the tuba player, whose firm tone so confidently underpinned the orchestral writing at the beginning of Scene Seven. It was only fitting, though, that the evening closed with a rousing group of Partisans, reminding us how lucky we are to have a chorus such as that at English National.

This was my Prom of the Year so far, without a shadow of a doubt. A significant musico-dramatic experience that will remain with me for a long time.

Colin Clarke




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