War and Peace, Coliseum, London

Songs in the key of strife
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The Independent Culture

Slowly, in silence, a woman with a shopping bag crosses the stage. A bleached-out front cloth depicts her journey through the snow. Scarred buildings disfigure the landscape. A mother in Mother Russia. A victim in her own cold war. The time could be anywhere in the last 60 years. And suddenly the stage is full of many just like her, along with their husbands, sons and daughters, partisans past and present. And they sing defiantly of the motherland's resilience. They will always overcome. But if this is peace time, at what price victory?

Tolstoy asked the same question. Prokofiev lived it. War and Peace – the opera – was fashioned in time of public and personal strife. Its great choral edifices became the voice of the Soviet Union in ascendancy, hijacked, if you like, for propaganda. At the close of the opera, Field Marshal Kutuzov's paean to Russia – the opera's big hit tune – is taken up by the people. But in Tim Albery's fine new staging for ENO, the people sing to order, brow-beaten and grim-faced, their joy indistinguishable from their earlier defiance. The power of all these voices is overwhelming. But all you can think about is the woman with the shopping bag.

The great strength of Albery's staging is the great strength of Prokofiev's opera: its concern for individuals. Their lives mean something – to us, to each other. Sung dialogue is played here with the conviction and immediacy of the spoken word. To give an example, the key scene where John Dazak's Pierre Bezukhov confronts the odious Anatole Kuragin of John Graham-Hall over his deception of Natasha. This is exciting stuff. Dazak's Pierre grows in stature before our eyes. He is suddenly the opera's conscience. Graham-Hall uses every word like the weapon of privilege it is. This is the war at home. And at the bottom of the heap, as ever, fighting the good fight and moving the furniture, literally, are the proletariat. The furniture is quite a feature of this production. When not in use, it simply sits discarded like the jumble of history.

The look of the show is effectively skeletal. Hildegard Bechtler's emblematic designs are like scraps of history, faded photographs and old newsreels are a reminder of the realities. A black wall carries the blurred negative image of a chandelier, falling in slow motion as war is announced. The floor of the St Petersburg ballroom where Natasha's love for Andrei blossoms is torn apart to serve as trench-ramps.

That unfulfilled romance between Natasha and Andrei is, of course, at the crux of the opera. Sandra Zeltzer (sounding remarkably Slav) and Simon Keenlyside ardently voice its promise. But in a remarkable theatrical coup, their belated re-union, when Natasha secretly seeks out the fatally wounded Andrei (and Keenlyside is at his most impressive here), is seen from his viewpoint, the end of a long delusion. "He died in her arms", Pierre is told later. But Albery has Natasha walk away before Andrei takes his last breath as if to say that politics and society tore them apart long before death did. A stunning moment which speaks volumes.

But there are many stunning moments in this impressive evening, a high proportion of them from the pit, where Paul Daniel and the ENO orchestra are magnificent – be they tracing out the dappled music of spring and first love or calling up heavy battalions of percussion and brass. On stage, even individuals as charismatic as Willard W White as a towering Kutuzov cannot detract from the fact that this is a company show. Everyone looks and sounds proud to be there. As well they might.

To 28 Nov 2001(020-7632 8300). Broadcast on Radio 3 on 24 Nov 2001