There are several good reasons to see English National Opera's new production of Prokofiev's rarely-staged epic War and Peace: a massive cast of fine singers, conducting that once again shows how perceptive and interesting a musician Paul Daniel is, a set that plays artfully with the notions of interior and exterior, and the emphatic, impressive clarity of Tim Albery's direction. Alas, Prokofiev's score – a muddled mix of the personal and political where the aesthetics of Stalinist propaganda ultimately triumph over those of Tolstoy's novel – is not one of them.
How Prokofiev would have resolved this opera without a decade of state interventions to contend with is something we cannot know. If the music of the first part, Peace, fails to engage, Tolstoy's portrait of domestic misery and naive idealism amongst the aristocracy of 19th-century Russia is sophisticated enough to compensate. In War, however, passion is replaced by blunt propaganda. With the exception of Pierre and Andrei – whose death scene contains the only really memorable material in the entire score – we lose sight of the characters who have been so carefully developed. Class (though still screamingly evident in the ranks of the Russian Army) is suddenly an official irrelevancy. Individuality is erased; Napoleon appears as a neurotic puppet, Natasha and Pierre are never reunited, and Field Marshall Kutuzov becomes a heroic cipher whose sole purpose is to rouse an audience subdued by privation. The (off-stage) battles rage on. Winter kicks in. The French are defeated, and the Russian people sing lugubriously, lengthily and loudly of their astonishing ability to withstand suffering – for, just in case it's not clear, the Russian people in Prokofiev's epic are actually those of his own terrible century. And there you have it.
It sounds dreadful, doesn't it? But before the local branch of the Socialist Workers Party start writing letters about the glories of Stalinist Russia, can I just say that it's not the propaganda I object to so much as its application to Tolstoy's novel. So how can you stage such an uneven work and it make it true to two different sets of values? By doing exactly what Tim Albery has done. Through moving the Epigraph (in which "the Russian people affirm their strength and ability to repel enemy invaders") to the front of the piece, Albery establishes the 1940s viewpoint immediately; adding piquancy to Natasha's ill-fated love for Andrei and Pierre's ill-fated love for Natasha, and creating a platform for the blurring of centuries. To this end, the chorus are clad in the same – or similar – proletariat uniform of overcoats and headscarves throughout. Servants who flit through the ballrooms of the first half, linger and stare at the 19th-century aristocracy as though they are seeing ghosts in an empty room. Indeed the poor are almost always with us; at the sides of the stage or moving across it drably. It's a dizzying, double effect – looking back at people looking back at people – but it works. The only hiccup is during the battle scenes, where the split-screen video projection (all antique flecks and jerks) suggests footage from another era altogether.
For all the brilliance of the first performance, this is a show that will benefit from repetition. Certain scenes need more elastic, less urgency, a little more space to allow the singers to find some glow in Prokofiev's un-lyrical lines. Of the supporting cast, Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Akhrosimova), Susan Parry (Hélène), Rebecca de Pont Davies (Marya), and Jacqueline Varsey (ADC to Murat), stand out for clarity and character. John Daszak (Pierre) again proves his dramatic sensitivity as Pierre. Willard White's role as Kutuzov makes little demand on his acting but exploits his burnished tones to the full. Simon Keenlyside is a wonderful Andrei, the perfect, reserved opposite to John Graham-Hall's venal Anatole. And though French soprano Sandra Zeltzer (Natasha) suffers most from the Coliseum's lack of surtitles, she successfully conveys extreme youth and vulnerability.
Urging readers to go to productions isn't a responsibility to take lightly. In this case, it's particularly difficult. War and Peace is a long, frustrating work and purists will be enraged by Albery's transposition of the Epigraph. But for anyone curious about the seemingly impossible task of making an awkward opera into strong theatre – let alone the effort of mobilising 58 characters and a chorus around a stage – this production is a must-see. Don't expect to be soothed or moved in that easy bel canto way. Expect to be fascinated and challenged.
'War and Peace', English National Opera London WC2 (020 7632 8300) to 28 Nov.