EDINBURGH (Reuters) - An original version of Sergei Prokofiev’s opera “War and Peace,” brought to the stage in a joint Scottish-Russian collaboration, has had its world premiere to critical acclaim in Scotland.
Prokofiev, born in the Ukraine in 1891, wrote the opera in the early days of Germany’s 1941 assault on the Soviet Union, basing the work on Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel about the 1812 French invasion of Russia.
The composer, who also wrote the script with his second partner Mira Mendelson, had projected a lyrical production with a stress on characterization and the interaction of relationships and the human face of a people at war.
But the state censors, reflecting the desire of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin for strident wartime heroism and the need for a strong leader, demanded numerous revisions over a period of years.
Students from the Glasgow-based Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) and Russia’s Rostov State Rachmaninov Conservatoire in Rostov-on-Don, together with the Scottish National Opera, collaborated to bring the original three-hour epic to the stage.
Two performances were scheduled in Glasgow and two in Edinburgh, with the last performance to be performed in the capital’s Festival Theater on Saturday.
A gala Russian premiere will be held at Rostov in March, with a group of RSAMD students participating.
The Times newspaper headlined its review of the work: “Thrilling result as Stalin is purged from Napoleonic saga.”
Critic Richard Morrison said he missed the “spine-shuddering choruses” of the Soviet-inspired version.
“But this original version is theatrically tighter, more lyrical — and a more practical proposition in this straitened times.”
In a five-star review, Scotland’s Herald newspaper praised the “panoramic sweep and riveting intensity” of the opera.
The origins of the new production arose from the passion of former RSAMD Vice-Principal Rita McAllister for Prokofiev going back to her student days at Cambridge University. Research for her doctoral dissertation had taken her to the art and literature archives in Moscow in the late 1960s, so she knew where to direct her quest.
“I knew that in theory at least the first version of War and Peace could be reconstructed,” she told Reuters in an interview. After getting permission from Prokofiev’s family, she returned to the Moscow archives in April last year.
“Then I cut and pasted a vocal score and then orchestrated the bits that had to be orchestrated because they had been discarded by Prokofiev in the revisions.”
She said Prokofiev had completed the first version with script and piano-score in 1942.
“Between then and his death in 1953 — his family believe from a broken heart as a result of his trials with the opera — he tried various revisions, additions, insertions, excisions to try and get the piece performed.”
Two of Prokofiev’s grandchildren attended and approved of the first performance in Glasgow.
McAllister said the first half of War and Peace was actually staged in 1946, running to 105 performances, probably unique for a half-opera.
Why her dedication to this project?
“One of the main reasons for doing this was not to say this was now the version that people should do. It’s certainly where the work started and it will provide an additional perspective for future directors as to what they would do, which of the many versions they would select to do.”
Alexander Danilov, rector of the Rachmaninov Conservatoire, told Reuters in Edinburgh there was great interest in Rostov in the production and the collaboration between the conservatoire and the RSAMD which went back several years.
“We’re expecting a lot of discussion...It will be useful not only for musicologists but the historic subject in its entirety.”
Editing by Paul Casciato