Thanks to its gargantuan forces – with more than 60 named roles and a vast chorus reflecting its epic novel forbear – Prokofiev’s War and Peace is rarely staged. But it was protracted wrangling by Soviet censors that caused Prokofiev never to see the opera before he died, coincidentally the same day as Stalin.
During the opera’s development, Tolstoy’s 1812 narrative was disastrously replayed by Hitler when he invaded Russia in 1941. Hence the authorities looked for ultra-patriotism, where Prokofiev had intended a more domestic drama.
David Pountney’s superbly insightful English-language production for Welsh National Opera, based on a recent critical edition, honours the spirits of both composer and novelist, while providing spectacle aplenty in a way that contextualises the opera’s propaganda aspect.
Within designer Robert Innes Hopkins’s austere wooden set, David Haneke’s video backdrop incorporates apocalyptic scenes from Bondarchuk’s 1960s film while the excellent, multiple role-playing cast and chorus sing with visceral potency.
Yet their delicacy, too, is striking alongside a WNO Orchestra that enthrals from collective bombast to refined and sometimes witty, chamber-scored characterisation under conductor Tomas Hanus.
Knitting together Peace (Part 1) with War (Part 2), most thematically vital is not the compelling, ill-fated love between Natasha (Lauren Michelle) and Andrei (Jonathan McGovern) – nor even their sharply observed entanglements with Anatole (Adrian Dwyer) and Helene (Jurgita Adamonyte) et al; it’s the humanistic awakening of Pierre (the outstanding Mark Le Brocq) – here mirroring Tolstoy himself – through his encounters with ordinary Russians.
As the people pull together across social divides to repel the invader, it’s a gripping reminder of recent European history. This national company explores nationalism with intelligence and candour, at a time when its political resurgence feels darkly ominous.