Review: War and Peace, Royal Opera House

Staging a three-and-a-half hour operatic dramatisation of War and Peace is an ambitious undertaking. Adapting Sergei Prokofiev’s immense opera for the English stage was always a brave choice by David Pountney, the artistic director of the Welsh National Opera.

Based on the acclaimed work of the author Leo Tolstoy, it tells the love story of Natasha (Lauren Michelle) and her betrothed Andrei (Jonathan McGovern), as they find their love challenged by temptation. It is set against the backdrop of the 1812 Napoleonic invasion of Russia, a time when Russian lives would forever be altered.

In its original run in Cardiff, critics were quick to deride the WNO piece for “losing momentum throughout the performance” and yet I feel the first half does nothing to engage me. I find the general sequencing of lyric-dramatic scenes does nothing to illustrate the richness of Tolstoy’s plot and landscape, whereas, in the second act, there is a sense of drama during “War” that spurs us along with far more ease.

The combined vocal talent of the chorus cannot be denied and the work of Tomáš Hanus as orchestra conductor is sublime. McGovern and Michelle as the star-crossed Andrei and Natasha deliver superb performances, and Mark Le Brocq and Jurgita Adamonytė are both engaging as Pierre and Hélène.

However, I cannot deny I find the translation into English baffling at times. The whimsical lyrics of the first act, as Natasha struggles to decide what is best for her romantically, border on the ridiculous at times. 

The design of the set by Robert Innes Hopkins depicts a wood-panelled, half-circular communal space used by the actors for a multitude of scenes. A large screen behind the space simulates much of the opulent facades of imperial Russia in the first half – entitled “Peace” – while incredible battle scenes are sprawled across the screen during the second (“War”). The downstage space could become dull, were it not for Innes Hopkins’s use of levels to create a sense of space and dimension to the stage.

I commend Pountney for the ambitious nature of the piece. The cast are in beautiful sound and the set is dynamic enough to hold attention, but the odd nature of the composition feels jarring throughout.

War and Peace played the Royal Opera House until 24 July. For more information, visit the Royal Opera House website.