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Blu-ray Review

Serge Prokofieff

War and Peace

  • Prince Andrei Bolkonsky - Alexander Gergalov
  • Countess Natasha Rostova - Yelena Prochina
  • Count Pierre Bezukhov - Gegam Gregorian
  • Field Marshal Kutuzov - Nikolai Okhotnikov
  • Napoleon - Vassily Gerello
  • Prince Anatol Kuragin - Yuri Marusin
  • Countess Hélène Bezukhova - Olga Borodina
  • Maria Akhrossimova - Irina Bogacheva
  • Count Rostov - Sergei Alexashkin
  • Dolokhov - Alexander Morosov
  • Old Prince Bolkonsky/Matveyev - Vladimir Ognovenko
  • Denisov - Mikhail Kit
  • Sonya - Svetlana Volkova
Mariinsky Theater Chorus
Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater/Valery Gergiev
Graham Vick - Stage Director
Timothy O'Brien - Set Designer
Valentina Komolova & Sue Wilmington - Costume Designers
Thomas Webster - Lighting Designer
Alexander Polubentsev - Choreographer
Recorded live at Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, 1991
Arthaus Musik Blu-ray 109093 248m Full Screen LPCM Stereo
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon JapanOrder Now from ArkivMusic.comFind it at CD Universe Find it at JPC
Also available on 2DVDs 109092: Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - CD Universe - JPC

Recorded in 1991, this War and Peace production was the first complete staging of Prokofiev's huge and masterful opera. Mstislav Rostropovich led concert performances of the work complete in Paris in December, 1986, from which Erato derived the opera's first complete recording, issued in 1988 on a 4-CD set. That was an excellent effort on all counts, one of the finest accomplishments by Rostropovich in his uneven career as a conductor. Richard Hickox led complete performances of the opera in 1999 at the Spoleto Festival and Chandos issued a 4-CD set based on those efforts in 2000. It was also a success, though not quite at the level of the Rostropovich. All other recordings of War and Peace, like the classic 1961 Melik-Pashayev on Melodiya, have been cut, in some cases quite severely, like the 1950s recordings by Artur Rodzinski and Werner Janssen.

Gergiev's War and Peace was first issued on CD in 1993, receiving not altogether positive reviews. It first appeared on DVD in 2003. Over time, it has seemed to grow in stature and this video reissue of the opera offers strong evidence that Gergiev and his Mariinsky forces (the Mariinsky was called the 'Kirov Opera' back when this recording was made) deliver a mostly excellent performance. Its only serious competition in the video realm comes from the Gary Bertini-led Paris National Opera production on TDK, which I reviewed here in 2003 (TDK DVD DVOPWP). There is (or was) a half-decent video production of the opera on an Encore DVD, featuring the Seattle Opera led by Mark Ermler, which offered bare-bones, rather generic-looking packaging and poor video quality. Thus in the realm of video, it comes down to this Gergiev/Mariinsky version and the Bertini/Paris.

Although Bertini's is cut (about a half-hour is excised), it is excellent in most other respects, especially in the lead roles: Olga Guryakova is a radiant and passionate Natasha; and the two Americans, Nathan Gunn as Andrei Bolkonsky and Robert Brubaker as Pierre Bezukhov, are just about as convincing. Gergiev's Natasha is Yelena Prochina (also spelled 'Prokina') and she is undoubtedly quite fine, but I'll give the edge to Guryakova. It's hard to choose among the other roles, though I suppose one might concede that the more authentic Russian character of the singing and pronunciation of Alexander Gergalov as Andrei and Gegam Gregorian as Pierre are a possible advantage in the Gergiev recording. Both recordings also feature excellent Kutuzovs and the rest of the singers in the two casts are generally good. Napoleon is portrayed by Vassily Gerello in both, and I favor his more arrogant style in the Bertini, though his singing and dramatic skills are probably equal in the two efforts.

There are imperfections in both these live recordings, such as a missed entry in the Gergiev by some of the singers in the big chorus just before Andrei's death scene. Speaking of the death scene, it is powerfully compelling in both performances, though I lean toward the Gergiev, not least because of the deftly-imagined flashback of Andrei and Natasha dancing at the ball. The Mariinsky Orchestra plays with a little more spirit for Gergiev than the Paris Opera Orchestra does for Bertini, though both are convincing enough in this lengthy and challenging work. As for the productions, stage director Francesca Zambello in the Paris effort is more imaginative and colorful with sets, lighting and stage action than Graham Vick, but the latter is more subtle and focused, both in his modest and often barren sets and his realistic portrayal of the story's events. In a way Zambello tries to capture a little too much, while Vick is perhaps a bit too modest. I suppose one might say that the mind favors Vick, while the heart favors Zambello. Her idea of featuring Natasha running into the arms of Pierre during the final chorus is artistically and emotionally a brilliant touch. But then, as suggested above, Vick's take on Andrei's death scene is brilliant in its painful contrast of happiness in love and tragedy in death.

As for technological factors, Bertini has the edge: the Gergiev features the older 4:3 picture format and PCM Stereo only, while the Bertini is widescreen and offers LPCM Stereo and DTS 5.0. In the end, the sound reproduction on both is good, though Bertini's is slightly better. On the other hand, the Gergiev has ninety-five tracks compared with forty-six for Bertini; so you can access almost any scene or event easily with the Gergiev. Another factor for some potential buyers is that the Gergiev here is significantly lower in price. For Prokofiev mavens, both recordings are a must. But if you're looking for a single video recording of War and Peace and your preference is for the complete opera, Gergiev and Mariinsky are undoubtedly the recording of choice. Even on other counts, it's a strong contender alongside other versions, including the various CD sets of the opera.

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings