From Russia with love

Opera - <strong>Patrick O'Connor </strong>finds episode rather than epic in Prokofiev's <em>War and

When Prokofiev composed War and Peace, during the winter of 1941 that followed the German invasion of Russia, he had already established himself as the leading Soviet film composer (Lieutenant Kizhe, Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible). The opera is structured rather like a film - brief scenes, sudden cuts to other events - and it even includes a direct quote from his score for Ivan the Terrible. Part one, focusing on the love between Andrei and Natasha, seems thin and rather inconsequential. Prokofiev was recycling music here that he had written for a stage version of Eugene Onegin, and there is a sort of all-purpose romantic, period-charm aspect to it. Part two, showing the repulsion of the French army and the sacrifices of the Russian people, has a sweep and grandeur to it. Ironically, or inevitably, Prokofiev never saw this staged in its entirety, the Stalinists having rejected his view of history, yet accepted the pseudo-Tchaikovsky waltzes of part one.

In the new production for the English National Opera, Paul Daniel conducts with obvious affection and relish for the rich orchestration. The evening flies by, there is no sense of longueur, but the lopsided nature of the work cannot be disguised. I was dreading topical or "significant" references, but Tim Albery's production is comparatively straightforward. It begins with a projection of a bleak, snowswept - presumably 1940s - ruined building. A tired woman walks across the stage (Mother Russia?), and then the curtain rises on the massed chorus of peasants singing the defiant hymn.

The first-act settings are inadequate, just a couple of screens with a blurred chandelier painted on one, a bit of stone facade on the other. For the ballroom scene, there is a parquet floor, which is covered by a tarpaulin for the rest of the time. Act Two is altogether more effective, with bits of the film showing military action, and a Cinema-Scope-shaped backdrop with suitable landscapes. Everything is stronger here, the sense of the people being swept along by the war, of the weariness that sets in as violence becomes mundane, the smell of death ordinary.

Simon Keenlyside, making his ENO debut, is ideal as Prince Andrei, a slightly hesitant quality to his acting and his romantic appearance enhancing his allure. With a lieder singer's ability to make each word tell, he rises to the most sensitive performance of the death scene. Willard White makes Field Marshall Kutuzov into a world-weary figure, drained of physical energy, yet with an aristocratic bearing that suggests his power in the field. His still powerful bass-baritone easily overcomes the sometimes threatening tide of the orchestra, and he sings the great aria that becomes the theme of the whole second half of the opera, with just the right mixture of restrained dignity and patriotic fervour.

As Natasha, although she sings well enough, Sandra Zeltzer fails to get much of the text across and never suggests the nervous tension of the character. The role of Pierre Bezukhov suffers most in the reduction to basics of the characterisation. John Daszak has the physical bearing and gentle demeanour, but he is really no match for John Graham-Hall's elegantly sleazy Anatol Kuragin. Napoleon is only a caricature in this version of the story, but Peter Sidhom does what he can, and at the moment when he muses on the sudden shift in fortune, there is a glimpse at the possibilities that Prokofiev and his librettist, Mira Mendelson, left untried.

War and Peace must have the longest cast list of any repertory opera - 56 named roles. Notable cameos in this performance come from Iain Paterson as the coachman in Kuragin's failed abduction, Ryland Davies as Napoleon's aide-de-camp, Susan Parry as an amused, sensual Helene Bezukhova, and Gwynne Howell as the dangerously dotty old Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky.

In Colin Graham's 1972 production at this same theatre, all the principals returned at the end to join in the anthem to Russia, but here it is only the chorus. I missed the feeling of continuity. War and Peace is a problematic work. With its insistent tune-plugging, it verges on the mood of the musical - I could not help thinking of Les Miserables more than once - yet, at its best, in the big choruses and the vignettes of soldiers preparing for battle, it conveys something of Tolstoy's epic.

War and Peace is in repertory at the English National Opera at the London Coliseum, London WC2 (020 7632 8300), until 28 November

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And now the trouble really begins