For a breakneck gallop through the romances and rebellion at the heart of this masterpiece, instead try Welsh National Opera's mighty production of the opera by Sergei Prokofiev that it inspired.
Directed by Sir David Pountney for the Cardiff-based company last autumn, and making two guest appearances only at Covent Garden, this overwhelming, four-hour undertaking, sums up a tumultuous period in Russian history in one gigantic package.
Lauren Michelle (Natasha) and Jonathan McGovern (Andrei) in War and Peace. Photo: Clive Barda
At the heart of the personal and public/political dramas are the romances of the captivating Natasha, and the invasion of Russia by Napoleon's army. The two worlds overlap when Natasha's jilted admirer, Andrei, goes into action to serve, and her faithful friend, Pierre, to observe.
Creating these contrasting spheres of elegance and confusion set design by Robert Innes Hopkins with video projections by David Haneke conjure up eye-catching scene after scene. Prokofiev struggled for 15 years over the ordering of the set-pieces that the novel suggested to him, and each stands alone, while connecting to others.
The opera opens with scores and scores of Russians from all stations on stage at once. (You will remember that the novel had 559 characters...) Out of this teeming mass emerge our heroes and heroines, and villains aplenty, not least Napoleon himself. That Prokofiev worked on his opera as Germany invaded the Soviet Union, 129 years to the day at Napoleon's incursion, gave it added urgency and passion.
Natasha (Lauren Michelle) consoles Pierre (Mark Le Brocq)
At the outset, Andrei woos and wins Natasha, who then falls for rotten Anatole. Ruined, she still has faithful friend Pierre, the ill-married intellectual who goes to the battlefield not with a gun but a notebook. As French troops invade, Russia rises as one, the privileged and the peasants alike, who in retreat burn their own lands to make them useless to the invaders.
From a spectacular ball to these hideous fires, background effects are created with a giant ellipse of kaleidoscopic photography and footage from Sergei Bondarchuk's shattering 1966 film of the novel, Voyna i mir. There is no privacy: bystanders and over-hearers hang over the balcony at the foot of the ellipse, listening in, helping out.
Prokofiev's frenetic score makes huge demands on its singers and players, and here is a tour de force by all. From Lauren Michelle's sparkling Natasha, and Jonathan McGovern's warm Andrei, to Mark Le Brocq's gentle giant Pierre, Simon Bailey's Field Marshall Kutzov, decrepit in appearance, decisive in voice and action, characters flow in and out of this rolling story.
Russia burns and its people stand defiant, in War and Peace. Photo: Clive Barda
Several singers take more than one role, Adrian Dwyer particularly busy in six roles, including Anatole. James Platt is impressive in a number of strong roles, including Natasha's father Count Rostov and volunteer Tichon.
Prokofiev's untidy score can ramble and sprawl, while containing striding and angular melodies that haunt. A noted composer for ballet, he also writes infectious dances that are splendidly interpreted by assistant director and choreographer Denni Sayers and the indefatigable cast.
Tomáš Hanus conducts the WNO Orchestra and Chorus, who respond with vibrantly-coloured energy, from the thoughtful bass clarinet and bassoon to the insistent side-drum.
Productions of this marathon opera are few and far between. So vast that it was at one time staged in two parts over two nights, in this compelling production time flies. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an opera on this scale, staged this well, is worth 587,287.
War and Peace is sung in English with English surtitles
|What||War and Peace, Royal Opera House review|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
23 Jul 19 – 24 Jul 19, one interval
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|