Immensity reigns. Sergey Prokofiev's monumental 1946 opera based on Leo Tolstoy's gigantic novel "War and Peace" has built-in deterrents to frequent production. With a running time of close to four hours, it consists of 13 scenes and calls for more than 60 title roles, many obviously double-cast, and what seems like hundreds of chorus members and extras. With that kind of expense, it's no surprise that this is a co-production with English National Opera. The overall result is superb.
Set in two large parts -- first Peace, then War -- the opera is unified by the ongoing but frustrated romance between the widowed and disillusioned Prince Andrei and beautiful Countess Natasha, whose love is finally confirmed only on the wounded Andrei's death in Scene 12. Prokofiev has lavished on these two roles arias whose recurring themes are leitmotifs identifying the prince and countess. It is music of such surpassing beauty that the composer seems, at those moments, like a Russian Puccini. He has also created a haunting, pulsing waltz for Scene 2 that remains indelibly in the memory.
Natasha is portrayed by soprano Elena Semenova with complete dramatic projection of her character's strengths and weaknesses, and a gorgeous voice that reaches a room-filling transcendence in her Scene 4 moment of crisis. Baritone Russell Braun is equally convincing in conveying Andrei's ambivalences, but on opening night his usually radiant, warm voice had difficulty achieving full projection.
Among the many other vocal and dramatic standouts were tenor Mikhail Agafonov as Count Pierre, and in secondary roles baritone Gregory Dahl as the coachman Balaga and baritone Vassily Gerello as Napoleon.
The difficulty of staging the war would be a set designer's nightmare. But Hildegarde Bechtler has actually used minimal means and maximum imagination to great illusional effect, while stage director Tim Albery accepted the spare set and added his own brand of ingenuity to convey cataclysmic ideas without words.
Both parts of the opera are on a large rectangular substage sloped back and to the right. There are very few props, and stage-width still photographic backdrops establish the ideas of frozen wastes, imperial bureaucracy, rolling battlefields and ravaged home interiors, with impressionist movie close-ups of fire in slow motion to connote the horror of Moscow ablaze. A small masterstroke was the use of a narrow horizontal opening at the back of the stage with swirling snow and bodies trudging across to heighten the feeling of crippling cold. Early in the War portion, backlit peasants were seen shoveling actual dirt in the digging of trenches, while the threat of impending invasion was electrifyingly captured with stark black-and-white stage lighting suddenly flooding blood red as hordes of peasants crouched in paralyzing fear.
Conductor Johannes Debus kept a fine balance between the massed forces and the orchestra. The chorus sang with cold force and not much warmth in the many paeans to the motherland almost certainly injected by Prokofiev as a sop to Stalin's rigid regime.
Produced by Canadian Opera Company through Nov. 1 in Four Seasons Centre, Toronto. Sung in Russian with English Surtitles. For more information, call (800) 250-4653 or visit www.coc.ca.