Monday 1 February 2010

The RSAMD presents War and Peace

If you're a War and Peace buff, Saturday night's performance, or the preceding ones in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, represent a particularly exciting prospect, since they present the premiere of Dr Rita McAllister's reconstruction of Prokofiev's original version.

I'm not a War and Peace buff, however, having never heard it before, save for a few radio broadcasts. I am, though, a great fan of live opera and there is precious little of that in Scotland, and what Scottish Opera does programme is often not that interesting, such that the RSAMD's annual production is very much welcome.

It's an impressively ambitious piece for any institution to take, requiring a cast of hundreds. In a sensible move, it is a collaboration with the Rostov State Rachmaninov Conservatoire, which provides a fair few of the key singers. Partly as a result, vocally the standards were high and everyone seemed comfortable in Russian. Michel de Souza was impressive as Prince Bolkonsky, so too Dmitry Ivanchey as Pierre. Elsewhere Maria Kozlova's Natasha was solid if unmoving. Acting was similarly decent and Rebecca Afonwy-Jones more or less stole the show for me when, as Maria Akhrosimova, she bossed Pierre around.

Sadly there are inevitable drawbacks to having such a uniformly young cast. For the most part their performances were sufficiently fine to mask such concerns but Aram Ohanian lacked, both in voice and physical presence, the feel needed for the aged Kutuzov - while I'm not his greatest fan at this stage of his career, this is the sort of role that cries out for the likes of John Tomlinson.

In the pit, Timothy Dean (the RSAMD's head of opera) led Scottish Opera's orchestra, augmented by academy students. The results were impressive: fine playing and sufficient drama. He was, too, a good judge of balance, ensuring his soloists were audible in a big house. And yet, it was good solid work without ever quite moving into greatness.

Given the epic scope of the narrative, director Irina Brown and designer Chloe Lamford have therefore done well in conceiving a production that is in many ways economical without appearing overtly so. The basic set, a vast pillared facade, set about two thirds of the way back on the stage, remains in place throughout, instead being modified by the opening and closing of sliding panels, lighting, and the addition of props, to double pretty effective as both Moscow drawing rooms and battlefields. It always manages to look suitably impressive.

However, it isn't always completely successful. Especially in the earlier scenes, the panels are rather over-used and slide about a little too much. Similarly, some of the scene changes are a little over-acted and seem played for silliness, particularly the case with the maid on the change into scene six.

More puzzling, there seemed to be an insistence in the first half that the cast always stand fully facing the audience. This doubtless helped ensure voices carried, and yet it led to blocking that, at times, felt oddly awkward.

When the setting moved to the war of the second half there were other minor irritations. The pyrotechnics promised by the warning posters escaped my notice if they were present at all. Were they missing from the repeated executions? Certainly they felt disappointingly underwhelming when simply mimed. As a result, there was not quite the spectacle that it felt there should be.

Elsewhere, one or two chorus members needed to bear in mind that while the sandbags they were lifting might not have been filled with actual sand, they ought to act as though they were, rather than, as sometimes happened, tossing them about like pillows. Similarly, having spent scene seven preparing an elaborate and visually impressive defensive position, trenches and all, it was a pity that when they finally took to it, while it looked quite exciting, it also looked for all the world like it had be designed by a general some way beyond incompetence.

There was, too, an unfortunate moment when the surtitle operator appeared to lean on the button and skipped through several pages of text. Fortunately Andrew Huth recovered his place with impressive speed.

Such niggles are, of course, minor. It was, overall, impressively done and very fine to hear and to look at. Certainly it's nice to see a straight laced production, free of the directorial silliness and excess which seems so fashionable these days. This was the kind of production that those both new and old to the opera house alike would have no trouble enjoying. The RSAMD and Rostov Conservatoire can be justly proud of what they've accomplished.

What is less clear is why the opera never won the favour of the authorities. It seems suitably stirringly patriotic. Apparently, this first version is the least over the top in that regard, with many more layers added subsequently. It's many years since I read the book, so I can't remember how much Pierre praises how great the peasants are or whether the triumph of the people motif is so strong. Similarly, I can't comment on the relative merits of this edition against those more normally performed. It's true, though, that it does feel rushed in places, adapting such a vast work how could it not? Yet at times this is unfortunate - Natasha's taking arsenic should not really provoke a titter of laughter. Perhaps this flaw was addressed in later versions, or was simply down to misconceived delivery of the line.

It leaves me wanting to get better acquainted with the work - it would be interesting to hear what Gergiev would do with it. It was nice to be back in the Festival Theatre again for some opera, though their front of house staff are clearly desperate not to be outdone by the Royal Opera House in snubbing the plebs: one bar was sealed off for a reception, fair enough, but did that make it essential to close down half the staircases while we were trying to get out? I'm surprised we weren't required leave by the tradesmen's entrance!

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