Charles Petzold

A "War and Peace" Christmas

December 29, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

Some Christmases have themes, and some Christmases have very strange themes. For me, the theme of this Christmas was War and Peace.

It all began last Tuesday, the 18th. Deirdre got us tickets to Prokofiev's opera of War and Peace at the Metropolitan Opera, and we drove into the city to see it. The curtain went up at 7:30 and when we staggered out to the subway, it was nearly midnight.

Prokofiev knew that he couldn't possibly include all the various plots and subplots of Tolstoy's novel in his opera, so instead he chose 13 scenes divided in two parts, relying on the audience's knowledge of the novel to fill in the gaps. (I read War and Peace when I was a teenager oh so many decades ago, but Deirdre read it in the spring of 2003 and loved it.)

Part I of the opera mostly centers around Natasha Rostov and the three men in her life — the dashing military man Prince Andrei, the kind and gentle humanist Pierre, and the rake Anatole. These were some of my favorite scenes at the various homes and estates of the characters. Two of the scenes are balls — wonderfully done with an amazing interplay among the characters, some beautifully nimble music and characterization, and a gentleness that is not to last for long.

At the end of Part I, Moscow gets word that Bonaparte had invaded Russia, and the Russian people flood the stage in a massive chorus and sing about driving out the invaders. (Prokofiev composed War and Peace mostly during the second world war, and the work abounds with Russian patriotism. This is a joint production of the Metropolitan Opera and the Kirov Opera, and the Soviet-realist style patriotism is delivered straight without irony.)

Part II takes place almost entirely on the battlefield. Huge armies march across the stage. In the Battle of Borodino, General Kutuzov — limping around the stage with an eye patch and cane like Wotan's decrepit twin — is sung by New York City favorite Samuel Ramey, one of the few non-Russians in the cast. Prince Andrei is on the battlefield, of course, but Pierre is also as an embedded civilian advisor. In the second scene, we see the French army and Napoleon — in full expectation of being greeted as a liberator and awaiting a delegation to give him ceremonial keys to the city. Big cannons roll across the stage. Explosions light up the sky. Several scenes later, Moscow is burning, Pierre is plotting to assassinate the Corsican, the French army is blasted by blizzards and chowing down on a dead horse, and Kutuzov is leading the Russian people in unabashedly patriotic choruses.

Chamber music it ain't, but what a wonderful experience, and a great prelude to three days of driving — first up to Utica for a traditional Christmas eve eve ham dinner with Deirdre's mother and sister, then driving down to Jersey to my mother's house for a dinner with my siblings and nieces, capped by the traditional Christmas eve cookie orgy, then driving back up to Roscoe on Christmas day.

Somewhere in there Deirdre gave me the new 3.8 pound Richard Pevear / Larissa Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace that everybody is raving about. I really shouldn't start reading it before I finish my book, but I just can't help myself!