PROKOFIEV'S WOINA I MIR
Radio New Zealand Concert network
Sunday 20th of January 2008 at 3 pm
INTERVAL Rejoice greatly, an opera quiz in the intermission!
Naturally, I first think of the War and Peace movies, especially the one with Audrey Hepburn as Natasha (I had a picture of her and her legs on my bedroom wall at that time, 1956). When that film came out in Sydney, I saw it in cinemas three times in one week (3 x 208 minutes; the Russian one, 508 m, has not come may way, yet); this was prescribed as a cure for myopia; first view it from the front row without eye-glasses; next sit in the middle of the theatre; finally watch it from the back row (my new friend Helen joined me for that one, so it is more than fifty years we have been together), and because the brain knows what it is looking at by then, no corrective lenses are needed. Needless to say, I was still half-blind when I was contemplating anything else without my spectacles.
Then there was the BBC version with Morag Hood playing Natasha, and young Anthony Hopkins as Pierre Bezukhov; he has been staring at me for years from the box containing the Penguin Classics translation, by Rosemary Edmonds (my book of translations of Syriac mystical writings is coming out any day now, so I think it is extremely important to name the translater! There is a red line under that word, but I don't care; that is this week's lesson in spelling reform). I am not sure whether I have ever redd (sic) it from cover to cover, so I have taken the two tomes out of the box to brush up on it (yes, there was a lot of dust to wipe away).
There is a father on television who reads it to his toddler at bedtime.
Woina i mir is the Russian title of Leo Tolstoy's book, but the sequence is the other way round in the two volumes: peace first, war second, with a return-to-peace epilogue. Here are the last words on page 1444 (the opera can last 4 hours, incidentally):"... it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist and to recognize a dependence of which we are not personally conscious". Does it send a frisson up your spine? It is the end of the treatise on history that Tolstoy attaches to the novel, starting at page 1400. I like the true ending just before that, when Pierre and Natasha are happily married with babies (fed on their mother's breast, not by the wetnurses favoured by the aristocracy), and Pierre has an idea that will change the world; and they both think of the philosophical farmer Platon Karatayev, who had been a fellow-prisoner of war in Napoleon's retreat from Moscow; his name was Plato, and he gave Pierre a potato, and a pep-talk.
How does Prokofiev end his opera (he was the writer with help from his second wife Mira Mendelson, and with 'compelling' advice from the Committee on the Arts)? At this very moment (after listening all afternoon to the Bolshoi recording I own, on 4 black discs), I have heard the final patriotic chorus. The potato scene in Moscow is there; Prince Andrey dies with Natasha by his bed to be told that he always loved her; the retreat in November 1812 includes Karatayev's death, shot for straggling in the snow; Pierre is rescued, and he learns that the people are streaming back into Moscow; Colonel Denisov tells him that Andrey has died but Natasha is safe (this sentimental personal stuff is not in my Soviet version from 1973: individuals do not matter); the people have triumphed under Field-Marshal Kutuzov. Still, Pierre (Henry Fonda) is free of his nasty Helen (Anita Ekberg), and Andrey and Natasha are no longer engaged, so Pierre and Natasha can live happily on the estate and have thirteen children, as Tolstoy and his wife did.
Which language will the NYMetO use for this production, I would like to know. It's the original Russian, I find, now it has started.
Prokofiev was a fearsome composer, deliberately writing scary discordant music. He had trouble getting his operas staged, but if he had only expanded Peter and the Wolf, with its approachable tuneful music, he might have had more success!
Nevertheless there is plenty of lyrical melodic music in this grand opera, as well as martial and ballroom music, and the composer was very proud of his work. He did expect us to know the book already, so as to understand the connections between the thirteen episodes.
As a story of aristocratic love it is certainly reminiscent of Eugene Onegin, but the Peace section reminds me, not merely in the ballroom scenes but in so many details, of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Am I having an original thought? Am I suggesting plagiarism?! Or does love always follow this same twisted path of prejudicial pride and elopement?