Saturday 20 July 2019

"A society performing their national myth" - Sir David Pountney on his production of Prokofiev's War and Peace

WNO War and Peace (Photo: Clive Barda)
When Welsh National Opera returns to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, this week, they bring with them a real rarity – a production of Prokofiev’s mightiest operatic undertaking, and perhaps his greatest disappointment. Prokofiev conceived of his setting of Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a contribution to the Soviet war effort at a moment, during WW2, when Russians were finding themselves living out a national drama of Tolstoian proportions. Prokofiev’s adaptation grew in scale, from a compressed narrative of 11 scenes – first performed in 1945, one month after the final victory against Germany – to a two-evening epic, which Prokofiev would never see staged in its entirety. A souring political climate in 1947 and 1948, culminating in the infamous denunciation of composers including Shostakovich and Prokofiev, put paid to the composer’s hopes of seeing the opera produced and he died 5 years later – on the same day as Stalin – bitterly regretting its failure.

Veteran opera director Sir David Pountney first brought War and Peace to WNO in 2018 and it now transfers to London for two special performances. Pountney’s production places the novel’s characters into a Nineteenth Century setting, but has Soviet wartime soldiers and personnel, from Prokofiev’s own day, watching and participating in the action. During the opera’s second half, which focuses on the Napoleonic war episodes, Pountney uses battle scenes from Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic 1960s film, projected behind the set, to evoke the novel’s action and to broaden further the commentary on Russian retelling of War and Peace. 

I spoke to David Pountney ahead of the London performances about his production of the opera, and about his broader experience with Russian culture. 

Sir David Pountney during rehearsals for WNO's War and Peace (Photo: Jimmy Swindells)

AM: When did you first come to Russian opera and culture?

DP: Well, I used to go with my parents regularly to the theatre in Oxford and when it came indeed to the opera, my parents actually took part in something called “music camp”, which was basically a way of people taking holidays during the war. They met in this farm house near Newbury and made music, and there was quite a lot of really good musicians there. And I remember, in 1952, they did a performance of Fidelio, for the Coronation, and I vividly remember sitting in an angle of the beam of this barn, and hearing Floristan singing his aria. I also remember the members of orchestra digging the pit, which not many orchestras would do now! Then my parents took me to see Boris Godunov at Covent Garden, I remember, a couple of years later when I was seven or so. So I had plenty of contact with opera from a relatively early age. 

And was it Boris Godunov that sparked an interest in the Russian side of things? 

I’ve no idea. I remember it was a last-minute decision to go and we got a couple of seats in a box above the orchestra, above the brass, which I remember was very exciting. I became a trumpeter, by the way. 

You’ve been associated with a lot of projects related to East-European and Russian music. Did you travel much to the Eastern Bloc before 1991? 

I did. I went to St Petersburg in the 70s – Leningrad as it was, obviously, then – because I was going to do a production of [Tchaikovsky’s] Queen of Spades in Kassel, and I decided that since so many of the locations are actually existing, I thought I’d better go and see these locations. It was a terrible mistake because the stage is nothing about real locations. For one thing, real locations tend not to fit on the stage, like mountains and things like that. I actually directed an opera at the Komische Oper in East Berlin during the 80s, before the Wall came down. And I spent some time in Poland and quite a bit of time in Czechoslovakia, as it then was. So I knew my way around the Eastern Bloc quite well.

When you came to working on Prokofiev’s War and Peace, how did you make sense of the different versions that exist?

I knew [Scottish musicologist] Rita McAllister, because she and I had worked on [Prokofiev’s] The Gambler together many years ago and I knew that she’d done this reduced “original” version. I thought that since that meant reducing it in some way, that that might make it more performable for us. So I started a conversation with Rita about that, and of course we ended up doing something of a hybrid really, because it turned out that from a purely pragmatic point of view, there were too many good things that weren’t in the original version, like the Ball Scene, for example, and it seemed a pretty dumb idea to do War and Peace without the Ball Scene. So we ended up creating a kind of hybrid version, which I think Rita was not terribly pleased about in the end, because she’d done all this research and wanted something that kept close to her research, but I think it was a practical solution. 

Do you happen to recall any significant portions that didn’t appear in your version? It’s my impression that the Kirov/Mariinsky version runs another 40 or 45 minutes.

Well that’s right – you’d have to look up and compare the versions. There’s a lot of choruses. The Bolshoi version, for example, has a terribly tedious long chorus at the beginning of it - a chorus to the Tsar on his birthday, which is very much better left out. And there are of course innumerable warlike choruses and that kind of thing. I think the version that we got is pretty good. Some people might complain about the “comic” ending, which is the original ending, and of course we slightly had our cake and ate it by giving the Soviet ending as a curtain call, if you remember that.

Well, it’s so glorious that you can’t not have it – such an incredible tune. 

It’s a good tune, yes.

Yes. Now, in a sense, the opera is a massive compression of the source material – it has to be. What is the effect of going from an enormous novel to a four-hour opera on the characters in it?

Well, I think there is a very considerable degree of simplification, no question. I guess the character who is not entirely simplified, but which it’s most difficult to realise is Pierre. What you don’t get at all are the periods of his fairly grotesque misbehavior, his sort of “hooray-Henry” past history. So you meet Pierre at a point at which he’s already become rather sensitive and complex and the sort of “Boris Johnson” version of Pierre, which you do get in the novel, is missing entirely.

Do you think the libretto does a good job of compressing the novel?

On the whole, I think it does. As it inevitable for Russians undertaking this exercise, I think they were a little too faithful to the novel. Virtually all of the dialogue is actually taken from the novel. And I think sometimes they’d have been better off writing it themselves. Sometimes the libretto is actually not very clear because they’ve lifted sentences from the novel without the huge background buildup to that sentence that the novel has.

Were there moments as a director that you felt you had to underscore in a certain way in order to convey the importance of a moment or piece of information?

What is missing, quite badly missing – and I don’t think I was successful or found a way of putting this into the opera – is the way in which Natasha is erotically captivated by Anatole Kuragin. The whole description of her going to the theatre and having Anatole stare at her eyes the whole time, or stare at her tits, basically, is all missing, and so I think you do have a feeling in the opera that you’re not quite clear how it was that one minute she was dancing ecstatically with Prince Andre and then the next minute she’s running off with this cad. It’s unexplained in the opera, I think.

WNO War and Peace: Lauren Michelle as Natasha and Mark Le Brocq as Pierre
(Photo: Clive Barda)

And is it a problem that characters disappear for a long time? Were you aware of that problem when you were working things out?

You mean Andrei? Of course, Natasha disappears totally.

Yes, and we spend a long time with Kutuzov in the second half – necessarily of course – but I guess that means we’ve left a lot of the characters behind while we’re with the war.

I mean, it is odd that they didn’t somehow deal with what happens to Pierre and Natasha after. It’s not entirely clear in the novel either, but you’re definitely left with a feeling that they’re about to get together.

And on to this, we have something of a framing device – Tolstoy appears in your production and Pierre assumes his mantel at the very end.


When you’re coming up with something like that, do you have to make a careful calculation about how much time you give to an idea like that?

Well, I think in this case you can only see how much time there was. I couldn’t have given any more time to it really – there weren’t opportunities. So it was really a question of whether it was possible to read that idea in the amount of time available.

You decided to produce it in English rather than Russian – what informs a decision like that?

Actually, very simply, that in the piece you have over 60 named roles, so the idea that you have all these people performing away for over three hours in a fog of incomprehension is a problem. Of course, people are professionals and they learn what is being said to them, and the top principals will obviously put a lot of effort into that, but nonetheless you are hearing something you learned somewhere – “that’s what he’s saying to me in this bar”, rather than actually hearing what he’s saying to you in this bar. So I think there’s an incomparable generation of stage energy and feeling and emotion coming from that fact that everybody understands what everybody’s saying. In an opera that is about collective experience, it would have made it much less intense from the performers’ point of view if they were struggling to remember what they once looked up the chap singing at them was actually saying. I think this is an aspect that is not sufficiently discussed when people are talking about so-called linguistic authenticity.

But does this need to be decided on a case-by-case basis, rather than a blanket rule one way or another?

Yeah, right. I mean, no one needs to know exactly what’s being said in La Traviata.

This production needed to fit into a least 4 different theatres. Does that have an effect on the decisions you make about what goes on on the stage?

Yes, obviously. We could only contemplate doing it because we knew we could do it with a smaller group of people because there were fewer of the huge choral numbers. There wouldn’t be dressing room facilities in those theatres for those numbers of people, so you’d have to be hiring porta-cabins, or having them change on a bus or something. So, I mean, there were definitely practical considerations. 

And you made use of some preexisting set as well, from Ian Bell’s In Parenthesis [produced at WNO in 2016]. Was that a similar kind of consideration?

Well, actually, that was more idea-based, because when I was thinking about what this War and Peace would feel like, I had the idea of it of being a sort of collective narrative, as though a society were performing their national myth, rather as we might reenact Dunkirk, or the Battle of Britain, or whatever. In order to achieve that one would need something like a kind of amphitheater, in which the characters could both perform and be an audience, and having thought about that for a short while, I realised that I’d actually got that set in the cupboard. I didn’t need to redo it.  

Some of the press coverage at the time raised an eyebrow at some of the contemporary resonance of an emboldened Russia. Was that something that you thought about, amidst all of these glorifying choruses at the end of the opera, that it could in a sense be Russia in 2018 or 19?

Well, or course, not least because the whole Novichok thing came along quite some time after we’d decided to do it, and also because we were involved with the Russian ambassador in one way or another in an actually unsuccessful attempt to find an oligarch who help fund the enterprise. But of course, we were aware of that and the fact is in the events that inspired this opera, the Soviet Union was our ally. We’d certainly have had a hell-a-lot harder job beating the Germans if the Soviets hadn’t been largely doing it for us. 

In the context of the Russian and Soviet canon, how important do you think this opera is?

I think it inspired Prokofiev to write some of his most eloquent and lyrical music, so it’s sort of inherently a “popular” opera really, once people thought of going to it. I think it responds to the tradition of the artform, particularly as set out by Verdi, as an expression of the state on stage, which has become increasingly rare amongst contemporary operas, which tend to focus on other things. So it’s a kind of grand element in the operatic tradition, and I think it has three or four wonderful characters in it, wonderful operatic characters, quite beautifully realised by Prokofiev. I think it’s very worth keeping in the repertoire.

My thanks to Sir David Pountney for the interview and to Welsh National Opera for the use of the photographs.

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