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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tolstoy Bursts Into Songs

Since setting off nearly four years ago to bring Homer's "Odyssey" to American television screens, world-famous film director Andrei Konchalovsky has spent little time at home in Russia.

Until now: The last two months have found him firmly ensconced in St. Petersburg, where he has taken on the daunting task of staging Sergei Prokofiev's opera "War and Peace" for the northern capital's principal musical theater, the Mariinsky.

Though he has made his career in film, Konchalovsky is no stranger to music, having long ago pursued it as a student of piano at the Moscow Conservatory. Nor is he a stranger to opera, where his directing credits include Pyotr Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades" at La Scala in Milan, Italy, and later at the Opera de la Bastille in Paris, and the same composer's "Eugene Onegin," also at La Scala.

Like Leo Tolstoy's novel, the opera which Prokofiev fashioned from it is a massive affair, comprising 13 scenes, 65 solo parts and a score which lasts nearly four hours. For the Mariinsky production, Konchalovsky and conductor Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky's artistic director, have tightened up the work considerably, reducing its length by more than an hour and discarding two entire scenes.

"We made our cuts according to notes that Prokofiev himself drew up in 1951, just two years before he died," Konchalovsky, whose films have included "Runaway Train" (1985) and "The Inner Circle" (1991), said during a break in rehearsal this week.

Like another Russian operatic masterpiece that is almost its contemporary, Dmitry Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth," "War and Peace" suffered abuse at the hands of the Soviet Union's cultural authorities and traversed a tortured path on its way to full realization.

Prokofiev began composing the opera in 1942 to a libretto by Prokofiev and his wife, Mira Mendelson, which initially focused on the tragic love affair between Natasha Rostova and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. But parallels between Hitler's invasion of Russia in 1941 and Napoleon's campaign of 1812 soon led to the composer's addition of a sequence of war scenes. Repeatedly censored, and subject as well to second thoughts on the composer's part, "War and Peace" never appeared on the stage in anything approaching complete form during Prokofiev's lifetime - or, indeed, until the Bolshoi Theater's production of the opera in 1959.

Musically, "War and Peace" is the most "Russian" of all of Prokofiev's operas. Echoes of the past are heard throughout, echoes in particular of Tchaikovsky, Mikhail Glinka and Modest Mussorgsky, while sparing use is made of the wild, often grotesque "off-center scherzos" which so prominently feature in Prokofiev's earlier works. Tchaikovsky comes to mind in the astonishingly beautiful lyricism of the music sung by Natasha and Andrei and in the waltzes of the ballroom scene. The stirring, patriotic chorus at the end clearly harks back to the final moments of Glinka's "A Life for the Tsar." Mussorgsky's imprint can be found throughout the Moscow street scenes. Yet every note of "War and Peace" comes unmistakably from Prokofiev's pen.

Even reduced in size, the opera is a complicated and tricky affair and has rarely been staged with much success. Asked why he took on a challenge like this for his first bout with opera in Russia - indeed, his first work of any sort for the stage at home - Konchalovsky answered that "the Mariinsky made me an offer," adding, in a characteristically offhand way, "I thought to myself - Tolstoy, Prokofiev, Gergiev - that's good company. I'll do it."

Not surprisingly, the Mariinsky production has run into problems, mainly due to the late delivery of the stage sets, parts of which are being sent from Italy and the United States. Originally scheduled for last weekend, the production's premiere has now been delayed to March 11.

"The sets are expensive and complicated," Konchalovsky said. "And they've been arriving piece by piece. The problem here is that Russians never plan ahead, and of course they're also short of money."

To carry out his staging concept, Konchalovsky, with set designer Georgy Tsypin, hit upon the idea of a revolving cap for the dome-like structure which covers the entire stage. The technically antiquated Mariinsky, however, lacks a revolving stage mechanism, meaning that one had to be built from scratch. As of Sunday, however, the dome itself had yet to arrive from Italy and rehearsals were being conducted on a temporary plywood substitute. Meanwhile, lighting and projections, both of special importance to a set which contains only the suggestion of solid structures, still remained in a somewhat experimental state.

The delay of the premiere has wrought havoc with conductor Gergiev's already supercharged schedule. On Sunday, from noon until late that night, he made his way twice through the entire score, rehearsing each of the production's two casts. This was his last chance to put musical matters in order before the premiere, for the next day he departed for New York, where, just two days before the opening night of "War and Peace," he is due to conduct yet another premiere, that of Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth" at the Metropolitan Opera.

Still, in spite of all the problems, there seemed to be no doubt Sunday that the pieces would come together by March 11. The production's singing, acting and orchestral playing, in fact, were already polished enough to put before the public.

From the look and sound of things at the weekend's rehearsals, Konchalovsky, Gergiev and Tsypin are treating Tolstoy and Prokofiev with both flair and respect. Although the technology used on stage may be thoroughly modern and some of the effects cinematographic in quality, the costumes, decor and stage manners remain strictly of the period about which Tolstoy wrote. Gergiev brings not only energy to his reading of the score, but also a sense of authenticity one has come to expect from the man who has turned the Mariinsky into a veritable House of Prokofiev, performing there six of the composer's seven other operas, in addition to another version of "War and Peace."

The Mariinsky's new "War and Peace" seems destined to become one of the best-traveled operatic productions of all time. Coproduced with the Metropolitan Opera, it is scheduled to end up in New York during the spring of 2002. Meanwhile, Konchalovsky and Gergiev will take it this summer to Covent Garden in London and next autumn to La Scala. In two years, it is slated to go to Tokyo and, later, to Beijing, where it will inaugurate the new opera house under construction in the Chinese capital.

Whatever the production's fate at other venues, its finest hour will no doubt remain the one it spent at the Mariinsky. There, the blue-gold-white imperial grandeur of the auditorium itself, though dating from half a century after the action of "War and Peace" took place, seems to reach out, embracing and combining with the visual effects on stage, creating a unified whole one can hardly imagine being duplicated elsewhere.

"War and Peace" (Voina i Mir) will play March 11, 13 and 14 and May 30 and 31 at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. To order tickets, call the theater's box office at (812) 114-4344/4262.