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
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
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.