Russell Braun and Elena Semenova add intimate notes to Prokofiev’s epic opera.
WAR AND PEACE by Sergei Prokofiev, directed by Tim Albery (Canadian Opera Company). At Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). To November 1. $60-?$275, youth $30-?$95. 416-?363-?8231. See Continuing. Rating: NNNN
You understand why it's called grand opera when you see a work like War And Peace.
Sergei Prokofiev's retelling of Tolstoy's novel is rarely produced, in part because of its size. With over 60 characters, more extras and a large chorus and orchestra, it's an epic work running nearly four hours.
The Canadian Opera Company's production, directed by Tim Albery, is a splendid take on the material, which encompasses a central love story - the triangle of Natasha, Andrei and Pierre - and the larger struggle between the strong-willed Russian people and Napoleon's invading French army.
Prokofiev worked on the piece during the German invasion of Russia in the Second World War, and Albery has made that seminal event in Soviet history the key to his production. He's moved the patriotic choral scene from the end of the first act to the opera's start, setting his determined Russians not in 1812 but rather 1941.
It's an intriguing idea, reinforced by having a number of silent 1940s people watching the 19th-century scenes, though the blending of periods isn't fully successful until the second act, when they merge into one resolute group. Throughout, Sandra Horst's chorus does first-class work.
The principal singers are just as strong, devoted to the material musically and dramatically. Elena Semenova is a winning young Natasha, and Russell Braun an idealistic Andrei who discovers the joy that love can bring. Mikhail Agafonov, usually a stiff, stand-and-deliver tenor, offers a Pierre with whom we can emotionally identify.
Other standouts in the cast include Mikhail Kit as Kutuzov, the grizzled general who inspires the Russians to victory, and as his counterpart, Vassily Gerello's egomaniacal Napoleon. Larisa Kostyuk as Pierre's seductive wife Helene, Oleg Balashov as her unscrupulous brother, Norine Burgess as Andrei's shy sister and Peter Barrett as Natasha's former fiancé also make an impression.
The work's second half has some long-winded moments - the War act, as opposed to the ball-and-romance scenes of the earlier Peace act - but Prokofiev's blend of lyricism, dance tunes and inspiring nationalistic melodies is impressive, and conductor Johannes Debus brings out the score's rich colours.