Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Peace in Cologne - War and Peace at the Köln Opera

War and Peace (Война и мир), Oper Köln, October 8th, 2011

Director ..... Nicolas Brieger
Conductor ..... Michael Sanderling

Andrei Bolkonsky ..... Johannes Martin Kränzle
Natasha Rostova ..... Olesya Golovneva
Sonya ..... Adriana Bastidas Gamboa
Fiodor / Ivanov ..... Alexander Fedin
Akhrosimova ..... Dalia Schaechter
Peronskaya ..... Kathleen Parker
Ilya Rostov/Marshal Davout ..... Wilfried Staber
Pierre Bezukhov ..... Matthias Klink
Hélène Bezukhova ..... Katrin Wundsam
Anatole Kuragin ..... Mirko Roschkowski
Dolokhov / Capitain Jacqueau ..... Daniel Golossov
Old lackay ..... Werner Sindemann
Marya Bolkonskaya ..... Regina Richter
Nikolay Andreyevich Bolkonsky / General Belliard ..... Magnús Baldvinsson
Matryosha ..... Sandra Janke
Gavrila ..... Anthony Sandle
Doctor Métivier / Marshal Berthier ..... Johann-Werner Prein
Denisov ..... Matias Tosi
Ordonnance of Prince Andrei ..... Philipp Hoferichter
Napoleon ..... Miljenko Turk
Adjutant of General Compans ..... Jeongki Cho
Adjutant of General Murat .....Gustavo Quaresma Ramos
Adjutant of Prince Eugène / Gérard ..... Ralf Rachbauer
Mr. de Beausset ..... Martin Koch
Capitain Ramballe ..... Dennis Wilgenhof
Leutenant Bonnet ..... John Heuzenroeder
A French Officer Sévag ..... Serge Tachdjian
Platon Karataev ..... Manfred Fink

Chorus of the Köln Opera

A decently staged grand opera by Prokofiev, War and Peace, is quite understandably a rarity today. When you see it programmed in one of the opera houses that is relatively easily accessible by the  train/plane, you cannot not to be tempted to go. When the Köln Opera announced their 2011-2012 program I was blown away: not only did they announce 10 new productions, but the top of their list boasted with War and Peace.

To stage this opera was indeed audacious! The cast is huge (see the -partial- list above), and the probability of having one or more singers indisposed for one or more shows is much higher, and --considering the fact that this opera is rarely staged-- you can only imagine the problems you might have when looking for the replacements on the short notice. So yes, you need to be very confident about your ensemble, you should engage 3-4 big singers for the top roles, you need a top notch chorus to sing several difficult arias in Russian and in French, besides participating in a number of mass scenes. To that add the uncommon complexity of the voluminous score, the task it represents for the orchestra, and you get a flavor...

So before I discuss this specific production, I would like to express my admiration for the Köln Opera, their ambitious intendant/director Uwe Eric Laufenberg, for having guts to provide a stage version of this opera, and give us --the aficionados-- a rare opportunity to see and listen to this masterpiece. I was more than happy to attend the last in this series of sold-out shows that apparently impressed the critics and the crowd alike. What a great-great grand opera this is!

Whenever one tries to revive a lengthy and rarely performed opera, there is a choice to be made: (i) to present a full version and let the public peck the pieces they like, or (ii) to cut out the pieces that might hinder the flow of dramatic action or parts that are not musically compelling, and therefore increase your chances for success with public. Either choice you make, you can be sure that a fraction of public will be frustrated and they'll show it in this way or another.

Luckily, opting for the 2nd choice is facilitated here by the history of its writing. Prokofiev was forced to add several scenes to the second part ('War') in order to please Stalin and the Soviet censorship. Peeling off those scenes today --while doing it intelligently-- is not likely to generate hostility with crowds.

So what has been left out? For those of you who saw this opera on DVD (very recommendable!) I should mention that all the pathossy epigraphs have been slashed, as well as all the scenes involving the General Kutuzov. As a result the story is more focused on the life preceding the war, and that during the war -- and the contact with the story about Andrei, Natasha, and Pierre is less pushed to the background. The war part gains considerably after the cuts because it is now more focused on the absurdity of wars, rather than the strategic genius of General Kutuzov that brought the Russians a crucial victory at Borodino, and marked the beginning of the end of Napoleon.

The love between Natasha Rostova and Andrei Balkonsky is like a leitmotiv, Pierre Bezukhov is a consistent subtle humanistic thread weaving through the whole story [in the 1st part he appears to be in impossible love with Natasha, while being married, a friend of Andrei's...; in the 2nd he was imprisoned and humiliated; he survived the war and then embraces the new beginning], and the temptation of Natasha to flee with Anatol is given a different perspective in this show (actually closer to Tolstoy.)

The French Army and Napoleon sing in (reasonably comprehensible) French, while everything else is performed in Russian.

Directing this opera requires lots of work from the director and his team. All in all Nicolas Brieger did a very good job, even in the parts in which the sets were not really great. He and his team cleverly explored the depth of the stage and made the action moving from foreground to background and vice versa. In that way there was no any stall moment, or a singer taking the stage to "act" by hands.
The interaction among characters is well structured and some interesting ideas are brought to the opera to make the production 'special.'

The episode that I particularly liked was the scene with Natasha being alone for a year, tired of waiting for Andrei to come back from the army. She had no news from him nor about him. Brieger then makes a very nice/risky portrayal of Natasha as a (sexually) frustrated young girl. The dancing parties on the court during the peace became more promiscuous and reflect the decadence of the court/world prior to the big War. When she met Andrei and fell in love with him it was a peace, and now she's alone while behind her you see the Russian aristocracy enjoying the blindfolded parties that end up with orgies. Natasha is only a 16-17 years old at that time, she feels isolated, frustrated, and falls for Anatol who is genuinely attracted to her -- in spite of him being married.  With this everything fits nicely in the storyline.

I also very much appreciated the last scene in which hundreds of people are killed, and with the cuts I mentioned above, this becomes the universal message about the outcome of all wars. To emphasize that point Brieger in the end makes a twist: all the dead soldiers get up, take their boots off and leave the stage ---> their boots will be filled by other soldier. The history will keep teaching the humanity about the absurdity of wars but there will always be people to go to wars waste their lives for some allegedly 'noble' causes.

The scene of Andrei's death apparently seduced the crowd the most (you'll see it in the trailer appended below).

The chorus was really excellent all the way. The orchestra must be praised for their courage to play this huge score, filled with all kinds of traps. I noticed only a few transitions when the orchestral unison was dispersed, but they would in two seconds pick up the pace, thanks to the young and evidently very talented maestro Michael Sanderling.

As for the singers, Natasha Rostova was my new discovery --and yet another excellent Russian singer-- sung by Olesya Golovneva. This is a very difficult role to sing and to cope with a huge orchestra isn't easy. Her voice is broad, powerful enough and the fact that she was able to sustain the equal intensity throughout the show was impressive. Her girlish physique is definitely an asset for the role. Brava!
Would I ever stop being impressed by Johannes Martin Kränzle?! I feel this man attacks every role as if it was his first ever -- with a great care and unreservedly invested in the character. Although perhaps a bit too mature for the role of Andrei, he sings and acts admirably. It is not surprising that the international opera critics associated with Opernwelt voted him the best opera singer in 2011.
Finally, I was really glad to see Matthias Klink sing great. I was not impressed by him in Paris (Pleyel) nor in Berlin (Deutsche), but here --for whatever the reason-- he was brilliant, with all the nuances of the character of Pierre Bezukhov were perfectly portrayed, and powerful enough to fill up the auditorium that is larger than the one at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin and close in seize to that of La Salle Pleyel in Paris.
All the other singers were quite good, with three who I thought sang particularly well: Mirko Rochowski (!!), Dalia Schaechter, and Miljenko Turk.

Production photos ©Oper Köln

Part One: Peace

Part Two: War

My pics:

The building inside and outside reminds you of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. It is a solid concrete construction, somewhat austere in style, but spacious enough inside for you to feel good. Auditorium is definitely larger than the one in Berlin, the stage is of the same size, and the acoustics is equally good as in Berlin.

Poster photos of the singers on the wall right from the entrance: Johannes Martin Kränzle in the center

Wall on the left: Matthias Klink (above), Takesha Meshé Kizart, Reiner Trost and others (below)

Atrium: "austere" but spacious

Inside auditorium

Another view
Curtain call pics (taken during the UNUSUALLY enthusiastic cheers that rarely happen in Germany for an opera not composed by Wagner; auditorium was packed with people -- I even noticed several small extra chairs put in the spaces next to the doors):


Rochowski, Klink, Golovneva, Kränzle, Scheachter

Katrin Wundsam: on her left is Miljenko Turk (Napoleon) and the French soldiers on her right

Superb Natasha Rostova and Andrei Balkonsky

Olesya Golovneva

...with Maestro Michael Sanderling

and the trailer

You are very welcome! ;)

1 comment:

  1. great reporting! intriguing to see pics of the opera house as well. and yes, this kranzle fellow you go on about - remember him well now (the glyndebourne beckmesser). do love war & peace so much - was completely bowled over when seeing the original ENO production as a wee teenager - believe i saw every performance of it that season! do believe that experience is what has made me an enduring opera afficianato......m!