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Opera on the frontlines with 'War and Peace'

Anastassia Boutsko
March 9, 2023

A new production of Sergei Prokofiev's opera "War and Peace" at the Bavarian State Opera is a call for peace. Russian star director Dmitri Tcherniakov sets his staging in the heart of Moscow.

A stage set as a large room with chandeliers, pillars and large portraits in round frames.
A scene from the new production of 'War and Peace'Image: Wilfried Hösl

"Again sufferings, necessary to nobody, utterly uncalled for; again fraud, again the universal stupefaction and brutalization of men." These words were written by Leo Tolstoy in his 1904 anti-war text "Bethink Yourselves!" in reference to the Russian-Japanese war taking place at the time. Tolstoy, once an artillery officer himself, had become an ardent pacifist.

It was precisely this quote that the creative team behind "War and Peace," an opera by composer Sergei Profokiev, chose as the guiding text for their five-hour performance at Munich's Bavarian State Opera, which recently celebrated its premiere.

Prokofiev's opera from 1946 is based on Tolstoy's novel "War and Peace," which was originally published in 1867.

The new Bavarian staging is a large-scale operatic production, not only because there are 40 soloist roles, but because the music is demanding. What's more, the current production has been staged within the context of Russia's brutal and ongoing war against Ukraine.

The original plot revolved around a defensive war Russia waged against Napoleon's troops in 1812. It's a sensitive subject, and an ideological balancing act — one the Bavarian State Opera team masters with a production that is a bold appeal for peace and freedom.

People singing in a large opulent room with chandeliers.
The Bavarian State Opera's new staging of 'War and Peace' premiered 70 years after Prokofiev's deathImage: Wilfried Hösl

A significant date

Even the date of the premiere, March 5, was significant.

On that day 70 years ago, in 1953, both the composer Sergei Prokofiev and the dictator Joseph Stalin died.

The opera is performed by a top international ensemble led by conductor Vladimir Jurowski, current general music director of the Bavarian State Opera, and Russian enfant-terrible director Dmitri Tcherniakov. Both are defining figures in Russia's arts and culture scene, and both currently work a healthy distance from their homeland.

Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 pushed the creative team to the brink of despair; the already planned project seemed doomed to failure. Nevertheless, the entire team decided to take the gamble and still go forward with the production of "War and Peace," out of a sense of responsibility and as a commitment to art as a means of taking a stand, especially in times of war.

People singing on a stage in a celebratory fashion.
The production features cast members from Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere in eastern EuropeImage: Wilfried Hösl

What war does to the world

The four-volume novel, "War and Peace," by Leo Tolstoy is a key piece of Russian and world literature and is considered a masterpiece of 19th-century fiction. The title in Russian, "Война и мир" ("Voyna i mir") can also be translated as "War and the World." "Война" or "voyna" means war, but the Russian word "мир" ("mir") has the double meaning of "peace" and "world." According to sources, that was also Tolstoy's original intention.

In the novel, Tolstoy analyzes the nature of violence. At the time, he was observing the French army's invasion of Russia in 1812. According to Tolstoy, although violence destroys peace and makes people suffer, it ultimately cannot change the world.

Sergei Prokofiev, meanwhile, wrote his opera during Adolf Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Although the composer inevitably condensed Tolstoy's mammoth work into a shortened and less demanding version, the opera's main theme remains the juxtaposition of a peaceful society with one ravaged by a brutal war.

Sergei Prokofiev and his wife (front center) at the inauguration for the First All-Union Congress of Composers at the House of the Unions.
The composer's work was censored in Russia: Prokofiev and his wife (front center) at a congress of composers in 1948Image: Glinka-Museum Moskau

Life hadn't been easy for Prokofiev, either. When he returned to the Soviet Union in the 1930s after a successful international career, he found himself at the mercy of the Russian regime, which condemned all modernist trends in music. Although he was the country's top composer at the time, his performances were banned for being too contemporary. He worked on different versions of "War and Peace" until his death in 1953 and yet was never able to see the final, fully staged version of his opera.

Opera stars from Ukraine and Russia

For the new production in Munich, Jurowski and Tcherniakov recruited a fleet of opera stars from Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Armenia, as well as from other western European countries.

The main roles of the lovers, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Natasha Rostova, a favorite heroine in Russian literature, are brilliantly cast with Andrei Zhilikhovsky, a native of Moldova, and the Ukrainian soprano Olga Kulchynska.

Kulchynska faced criticism by some of her compatriots for participating in a supposedly "Russian" production, but decided nevertheless to take part.

Two women sit together, one singing and another smiling.
Olga Kulchynska (front) as Natasha Rostova and Alexandra Yangel as Sonya perform a scene from the operaImage: Wilfried Hösl

As if the war were in Moscow

Director Dmitri Tcherniakov takes a radical approach to staging the plot: He sets the war in the heart of Moscow. Both the peaceful scenes in the first part of the work and bloody battle and murders later in the piece are set in the columned hall of the Moscow House of Trade Unions — a location familiar to every Russian. Whether the reception for the tsar's coronation or in latter years the laying out of deceased heads of state from Lenin to Stalin to Gorbachev, it occupies a central place in Russian history.

War reveals itself as a cruel role-playing game without rules, drawing the heroes into a maelstrom of senseless brutality.

The war's effect on Ukranian art and culture

Conductor Vladimir Jurowski has long wanted to stage "War and Peace." He considers it "a central work of 20th-century operatic repertoire," and his enthusiasm is clear, while he keeps the large ensemble together musically with impressive precision.

"Why do people kill one another?" This central question in Tolstoy's novel is omnipresent throughout the opera. There is no answer. What remains, however, is a hatred of war that increases with each measure of music.


This article was originally written in German.