David Nice: Come closer to drama Prokofiev originally conceived

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In February 1947, nearly six years after he had begun his necessarily selective opera on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Sergey Prokofiev told a friend he was “adding still another scene…the thirteenth – what an operetta!”

Unlucky for some, perhaps, and especially for Prokofiev, who never lived to see his “operetta” – which is his most comprehensive if fitfully flawed masterpiece – performed complete in his lifetime. Very few of us have heard every finalised note he wrote, as stagings are usually cut. Nobody, in fact, will have seen his original intentions realised until later this month when Rita McAllister’s version reaches the stage.

War and Peace is part of an honourable line of Russian operatic epics which their ambitious composers either tinkered with willingly, were forced to adapt, or died before they could complete. Borodin’s Prince Igor had to be pieced together by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov after the composer’s death; Musorgsky’s original Boris Godunov waited over a century to reach the stage, which it finally did in Estonia, and now seems to be the version of choice.

The carefully-selected Tolstoyan speech-melodies of Prokofiev, himself a remarkable author, and his partner Mira Mendelson, were subjected to scrutiny by Stalin’s Committee of Artistic Affairs, a rather more strong-arm organisation than the Imperial Theatre Committee which had proposed changes to Boris; so from 1942 the war scenes were ballasted with patriotic choruses of Russian destiny – rather undermining Tolstoy’s view of history’s haphazardness.

Far from all the changes were for the worse: London audiences with long memories might remember Norman Bailey’s performance of General Kutuzov’s great aria as the highlight of English National Opera’s first War and Peace – and that, the opera’s most stirring melody, was one of the last additions.

Interested spectators in Glasgow and Edinburgh will miss that big tune and its celebration as the crowning glory of the Russian victory, as well as Natasha’s Cinderella moment at the ball. But they will also hear some remarkable, unfamiliar music, and will come closer to the tight-knit musical drama Prokofiev originally conceived.

* David Nice is a writer, broadcaster and author of Prokofiev: From Russia to the West, 1891-1935