I know this work very well from CDs, but this is the first performance I have actually seen. Perhaps some disappointment is inevitable, particularly if you know the book as well or the absolutely stunning Bondarchuk movie. Shoe-horning the vast scope of Tolstoy's vision into less than four hours of music and onto the stage of the Opera National de Paris is a near impossible task and as brave an attempt as this performance represents, I believe it falls short in a couple of key areas.
The good first. Nathan Gunn and Olga Guryakova perform creditably in the key roles of Prince Andre and Natasha Rostova, even if Gunn just fails to fully capture that heady mélange of sensitivity, self discipline and unshakeable belief in the importance of honour that should manifest itself in the brittle aloofness that Tolstoy described. He comes across more as an agrieved poet than a soldier with artistic sensibilities. But at least he looks the part and sings convincingly. Anatoli Kotcherga gives us a suitably monumental Kutusov and Vladimir Matorine brings to all three of his cameo roles, Tikhon, Matvelev and Balaga, that larger than life Russian peasant earthiness. Amongst the supporting cast special mention must also go to Margerita Mamasirova as Sonia, doubling as Murat's aide de camp, and Mikhail Kit as Count Rostov (doubling as General Bennigsen).
The bad. Helene is absolutely not the part Tolstoy wrote. She is openly, rather than subtly, sluttish, a man-eater instead of the emotionally-atrophied dumb blonde the writer gave us. Kuryagin is a non-starter for me as the womanizer who steals Natasha's heart. Go to the Bondarchuk movie for the real thing.
And the ugly. Robert Brubaker has a decent voice but in the central role of Pierre Bezoukov he is laughably miscast. Pierre is supposed to be a big, bumbling, embracing, soft-hearted bear of a man. Brubaker is a confused chipmunk. When other characters refer to his physique we can only scratch our heads and go to the programme notes to make sure we've got the right part. Nowhere does Pierre's inner, quiet power come through. I realize suspension of belief is an integral part of opera, but this is a bridge way, way too far and the role is too fundamental to ignore.
Crowd scenes, so important in this opera, are variable. Some work, some don't, same with the sets. I cannot escape the feeling with this director (Francesca Zambello) that packaging is more than content, words more than meaning. She's talking, and we'd better listen. Having said that, this is an incredibly difficult work to assemble and she gives it a good shot even if I'm left thinking that if we can't get the whole of Borodino onstage some retreat to symbolism may be preferable to an on-the-cheap attempt at 1950s-style Hollywood epic.
Support from Bertini and his orchestra is more than adequate, sound and video quality are good.
I have not seen the Gergiev version of this work to compare. Not that this Paris performance is bad. In many ways it's very good and may be the best we ever get given the challenges inherent in such a huge production. But you might shop around to see which flaws in the two productions you can support. One way or another this is not a work to be bypassed and whether you experience it in audio only, letting your imagination produce the picture, or in this or Gergiev's performance, find some way to treat yourself to this spectacular musical canvas.