On a turbulent day in Britain’s domestic politics it was a relief to dive back into 19th-century Russia’s convulsions, as recorded by Tolstoy and filtered by Prokofiev in his final opera, for a second helping of Welsh National Opera’s epic. At least our own starving classes don’t trade bits of potato to get through a tough winter. Not yet anyhow.

<i>War and Peace</i> © Clive Barda
War and Peace
© Clive Barda

The most incongruous aspect of this four-hour marathon was the curtain appearance of its newly-knighted director, Sir David Pountney, resplendent amid the poverty and grime in a Daz-white suit that gave him the allure of an archangel. Perhaps it’s his ennoblement that's enabled him to gather in every single cast member from last year’s Cardiff opening and preternaturally guide the hand of assistant director Denni Sayers in rehearsing them to 99% perfection in just one week. It means that these two performances in an accredited Society of London Theatres venue will qualify War and Peace for consideration at next year’s Olivier Awards. Heaven knows it deserves to win something, if only for the logistics.

Pountney’s resourceful staging looks a billion dollars but may have cost a touch less. Spectacle, of which there’s plenty, is achieved largely through the ingenuity of video designer David Haneke. His burning of Moscow is a stunning achievement; his extensive use of clips from Sergei Bondarchuk’s gargantuan movie version an aesthetic disaster. In a production that places suspension of disbelief high on its to-do list, the inclusion of slo-mo and freeze-frame imagery from a realism-based art form can only jar. No, the real star of the show’s look is Marie-Jeanne Lecca, who has researched and created hundreds of robust period costumes for the production.

<i>War and Peace</i> © Clive Barda
War and Peace
© Clive Barda

Prokofiev and his co-librettist Mira Mendelson solved the novel’s intractable length by dint of ruthless cutting and reordering of the narrative into 13 scenes, seven for a ‘Peace’ sequence before the interval and six for the lengthier and tonally different ’War’ narrative after it. To achieve this dramaturgical streamlining the bulk of Prince Andrei's story and the entire Battle of Austerlitz are sacrificed, while Pierre’s pivotal journey through the plot is shorn of a catharsis and often seems peripheral. Yet War and Peace remains a miracle of compression for all that with only a few scenes that outstay their welcome, for example the council of war that precedes a powerful soliloquy by Field Marshal Kutuzov (an outstanding performance by Simon Bailey).

Baritone David Stout, so good as both Dolokhov and Denisov in Part One, makes a charismatic impression as Napoleon during and after the Battle of Borodino. Indeed, if you’re looking for hooks on which to hang praise he and Bailey are joint gold medal winners – although there’s a whole raft of runners-up, not least the three fine leads. Tenor Mark Le Brocq captures Pierre’s bumbling compassion superbly, baritone Jonathan McGovern fleshes out Andrei’s enigmatic character by putting back some of the emotional content the libretto threw away, and soprano Lauren Michelle journeys from dewy-eyed ingénue to war-harrowed nurse with a gorgeous delivery of her melodically gracious material.

Lauren Michelle (Natasha) and Mark Le Brocq (Pierre) © Clive Barda
Lauren Michelle (Natasha) and Mark Le Brocq (Pierre)
© Clive Barda

As last year, the magnificent WNO Chorus and Orchestra are handsomely corralled by WNO’s brilliant young music director, Tomáš Hanus, and a solo cast of, well, dozens, flits between roles in the blink of an eye with effortless sleight of hand. Rita McAllister's grateful singing translation serves the performance somewhat better than 2019's most approximate set of surtitles.

While it’s a small miracle that the production has been recreated so well in such a short time frame, the eight-month hiatus does betray itself in one way. One or two of the singers have clearly been involved in different repertoire in the meantime and not everyone's voice has fully bedded back in to the vocal stresses of Prokofiev’s exacting lines. It would have been astonishing if they had. This, though, is a small niggle against the greater achievement, which is a staging of War and Peace that will haunt you (and I write from personal experience) long after you’ve left it.

****1