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Mariinsky, concluded

In today's Washington Post: Valiant, if uneven, ode to Tolstoy: Mariinsky offers War and Peace, by Anne Midgette.

By Anne Midgette  |  March 8, 2010; 7:40 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews , opera  
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Personally, I found the contrast between the first act and the second pretty appalling. Here you have these people trying to have meaningful lives while working with societal expectations, and all of that is thrown aside -- for what? Russian nationalism? And considering the amount of spectacle put into the display of Russian nationalism, it came across as pretty tedious, with soldiers marching and waving flags over and over. As I endured it I kept thinking of "Alexander Nevsky," which is also a work about the victory of Russian patriotism over foreign invaders -- but which also was much better executed dramatically and musically.

Posted by: robertcostic | March 8, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Robert, respectfully, your first two and ½ sentences don’t really make much sense to me. Have you closely read the novel? What do you mean by meaningful lives?

Perhaps a little like Ms. Midgette, I had my concerns over this 2000 co-production when I saw it on Saturday evening, my first time. I found the first act a bit too satirical and mannerist to a degree distracting from the very humane story. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I remembered enjoying the more traditional San Francisco Opera co-production of the work of the late 1980s or early 1990s (led by Gergiev, in his U.S. premiere). That production may have been the same big traditional production that was produced by the Seattle Opera and streamed, on a delayed basis, into the Kennedy Center then film-hall (now family hall) in an early experiment in digital television and opera. I recall those productions having just as much marching and flag waving in the second half as did this past weekend’s staging. Perhaps this past weekend’s Russian flags and uniforms were more informed by historical research than the flags and uniforms of twenty years ago, which is fine by me.

I was able to return on Sunday, and actually found some of the singing stronger than on Sunday – especially for the leading second act role of the Field Marshall General, but for some other roles as well. The first act direction bothered me less, and I appreciated more what I had earlier found mannerist in the stage effects of the first act (the very tall plexi-glass columns which invoked the evolution of life in the ocean or in a test-tube).

I am happy that the Kennedy Center and the Mariinsky sold-out both performances, and that there seemed to be standees in all available places on both occasions. Bravo.

(The issue of the Mariinsky’s choice of the Mazepa scene to be staged earlier last week is a completely different matter of contemporary nationalism and culture.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | March 8, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

To snaketime1: The book is about trying to finding the meaning of life. We get a bit of that in the first act of the opera. In the very first scene Andrei wrestles with the fact that he can't find any meaning until he falls in love with Natasha. The rest of the act is about trying to keep that love and live meaningfully in it while having to overcome obstacles of aristocratic social norms, cruel and frivolous people, and events outside of the characters' control.

The book uses the war to transform the characters and give them a new perspective. We get a small glimpse of that in the opera, when we see Andrei tell Natasha that "love is life," etc., and when Pierre announces that the atrocities he went through made him re-evaluate what was really important.

But these profound considerations are shoved to the side for the banner-waving and marching of the Russian masses. It's the equivalent of having a love song drowned out by the blaring of a national anthem.

The best that I can say about the second act is that it was probably more appropriate for Russians coming out of WWII. The concept of defending their land from foreign invaders must have been an extremely sensitive subject that could easily well up strong emotions, and the second act tries hard to play up to those feelings. But it doesn't stand up well outside of that context.

Posted by: robertcostic | March 8, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Mr. Costic, for your new comments. I will disagree with your opinion that Leo Tolstoy’s profound considerations of the meaning of life are shoved aside in the second act of this moderately long opera. Yes, the cast of aristocratic characters thins out in the second half with the changed focus on military and peasant defensive military leadership (and with Napoleon). However, within the almost Brechtian-staged chaos of the second act, we do have the poignant, affirmative, and tragic moments of renewed focus on Natasha, Andrei, and especially Pierre (if not Sonya, Count Rostov, Helene, Prince Kuragin, Princess Maria, Dolokhov, and the many others). Yes, the opera sadly neglects the very meaningful ending of the novel after the death of Andrei (disregarding the two Epilogues). I had to try to justify this to one of my guests this past weekend.

This production, more than the earlier San Francisco Opera production, also emphasized for me the proto-post-modernist characteristics of Prokofiev’s score of 1941-53 (compared to which the preceeding Prokofiev Semyon Kotko opera score seems more like a populist, formulaic Soviet broadway show). [Prokofiev composed much of the opera after being evacuted to the Caucasus mountains, Georgia, and then Kazakstan, where he met the film director Eisenstein and worked to complete the Ivan the Terrible trilogy].

Unlike Berg, who incorporated film into his great modernist 20th c. opera Lulu, Prokofiev incorporated popular film and ballet concepts and music into his great tragic-epic diptych. Western Euro-centrics will probably argue that Lulu and Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) are the greatest operatic scores of the 20th c., but growing numbers of others around the world (such as the 1.5 billion plus who celebrate International Women’s Day each year on March 8) might also point to this Prokofiev ultimate opera (which the composer considered his greatest masterpiece).

Again, many thanks to the Kennedy Center and to the Mariinsky Opera, and to all the performers and staff.

Posted by: snaketime1 | March 9, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

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