21 OCTOBER 1972, Page 20



Music to match that epic

Rodney Milnes

The successful production of Prokofiev's War and Peace is important on a number of counts. If the first stage performance of a major work by a major twentiethcentury composer is an event in itself, then the huge scale of this opera makes it even more of one. The programme reminds us that this was one of the last projects that the late Stephen Arlen was involved in, and the production is dedicated to him. It is well known that Lord, Harewood has been lobbying for a performance for years, and this coincidence happily unites his new Coliseum regime with the old.

The scale of War and Peace — four hours of music, thirteen scenes, around seventy singing roles, full chorus, ballet, indeed the full operatic works — can scarcely have recommended it to nervous managements, and perhaps the most significant point about the whole undertaking is that it has happened at all. The final cost is not yet known, but it seems that it will be well under half that of the Royal Opera's Trojans, a work of similar scope and about half the interest. That is in itself a breakthrough in terms of finance. But it has not only happened, it has happened supremely successfully. The performance ranks amongst Sadler's Wells's noblest achievements, comparable to their approachable Wagner, their championing of Janacek in the 'sixties and early Verdi in the 'fifties. The present management's well-publicised predilictions should mean that the 'seventies will see a profitable exploration of the woefully neglected Slavonic repertoire — more Prokofiev, more Tchaikovsky, Rim sky, Janacek, Dvorak, Smetana et al.

Some of my heavier colleagues have been a bit sniffy about the score, but then a work that makes such an immediate and powerful impact upon an audience does rather undermine the critic's function (this and the old 'if-it's-enjoyable-ft-can't-begood principle). The troubles Prokofiev 'had with Zhdanov, the submissions to the Committee on the Arts and to fellow composers for approval — none of this seems to have compromised his vision. The first part is private: the love of Natasha and Andrei, his family's opposition, the foiled abduction by Anatol; and the second part goes public: Borodino, the council at Fili, Moscow in flames and Napoleon's retreat. The work opens with some of the most exquisite lyrical music written this century. Truly magical stuff. But it is Prokofiev's operatic technique that impresses most, the way the action moves inexorably forward, even in so necessarily fragmented a selection from Tolstoy. One marvels at the way conversation expands the narrative to the background of set numbers, at the ball where Natasha and Andrei first meet and at the march past before Borodino The use of speech and melodram, too, is intriguing; much is spoken that need not be sung, and song turns to speech from sentence to sentence. There is no more forceful way of adding emphasis in opera than by adriot use of the spoken word.

The death of Andrei is managed with recourse to the oldest of operatic conventions. " Would that I could see Natasha again," he sings, and there she is right on cue. The music goes straight back la Puccini to music from the early scenes: how corny it sounds in principle but how damnably effective it is in practice. One of the score's greatest strengths is its scoring, always individual, always Prokofiev, stirring where necessary, yet light enough for the voices and words to come through. This is the mark of a true opera composer, and David Lloyd James conducts here with the insight and care of a true opera conductor. The work has an epic sweep that matches Tolstoy but seems so far to have eluded the strangely under-cast TV serial. It does not elude the Coliseum production team. Colin Graham marshalls his bilge forces with the confidence of a film director and elicits from a comparatively young and inexperienced cast performances of immense stature. The permanent set ensures speedy scene changes and the fine projections by Margaret Harris and John Wilmot do the work of ten Zeffirellis and a Brigade of Guards at a fraction of the cost. Yet big effects are not shirked. The discreet use of Strand Electric flames and smoke frames a stunning tableau of Napoleon in the ruins of Moscow, and the excellent choreography by Pauline Grant, which effectively uses Chorus as well as Movement, Group, makes for a duly sumptuous ball scene. Screened captions between the scenes tell you who is about to do what and with whom, a skilful substitute for the intimate knowledge of the novel that Prokofiev took for granted.

As for the singers (flatteringly costumed by Miss Harris), the emphasis is on ensemble rather than individuals, and an ensemble that rises to the occasion with admirable confidence. It hardly seems right to single out individuals, but Josephine Barstow's almost Slavonic tone, artfully varied as the scene demands, suits the role of Natasha perfectly, and her words are far clearer than ever before. Tom McDonnell's personable Andrei 'marks a new stage in his career, there is a notable debut from Kenneth Woolam as Pierre, Norman Bailey's tough Kutuzov and Raymond Myers's grumpy Napoleon ... the list is endless, but Malcolm Rivers (Dolokhov), Norman Welsby (Denisov) and Maureen Morelle (Maria) must be mentioned. John Brecknock combines a high lyric tenor with superb diction and he is a princely heel of an Anatol.

At the old Sadler's Wells Theatre, the English Opera Group has revived Walton's trifle The Bear, well sung by Patricia Kern and rather broadly produced by the ubiquitous Mr Graham, and the Group's peculiar version of King Arthur (by Philip Ledger and Colin Graham), which, whatever doubts you may have about it, is handsomely staged (again by Colin Graham) John Gardner's The Visitors, premiered at Aldeburgh in the summer, has had its first London performance. There is much fine music (a jazz interlude, some sonorous ensembles and good musical characterisation) and first-rate production by Anthony Besch. The whole is scuppered by a libretto that is is an irritating cocktail of one part facetiousness to two parts obscurity — and the sort of obscurity that makes Tippett and Hofmannsthal positively crystalline. I hope Mr Gardner will try again, and soon.