With five different versions spanning 13 war-torn years, few operas have had as tortuous a genesis as Prokofiev's War and Peace. So the four years' planning that conductor Paul Daniel and his director Tim Albery have put into their English National Opera production is no big deal. But the Bohème and Traviata with which ENO reopened in September were last-minute stop-gaps for shifting building schedules: tomorrow's premiere of War and Peace is the real start of the season.
This work was ostensibly about what Russians still call the First Great Patriotic War – Napoleon vs Kutuzov – but its true subject was what they call the Second GPW, Stalin vs Hitler. When the All-Union Committee on Artistic Affairs got its hands on it, it forced Prokofiev to prune the recitatives and intensify the choral heroics; he was later made to tone down the aristocratic charm and transform Marshal Kutuzov into an idealised Stalin. Last summer, London audiences saw what Valery Gergiev and his St Petersburg singers had made of it: with the war-scenes' realism informed by living memories of the Second World War siege of Leningrad, this was a quintessentially Russian spectacle. What can we now expect?
"Nothing like that," says Paul Daniel, firmly. "But we start from the assumption that every note of the piece is political. If one single member of the audience misses this, it will be sad." The production will also, he hopes, reflect the extent to which Prokofiev was setting his own experience to music. "As far as he was concerned, in 1941, history caught up with art. He was evacuated from the action, and forced to leave his wife; the incredible tone-poem he wrote at the point when Natasha is abandoned suggests that this moment in the drama was intensely personal to him."
There will be no fashionable fudging of the period in which the drama is set, but if Daniel has his way it will bear directly on the world as it is now. "Prokofiev was not writing about war or peace, but about people – about what happens to great masses of people when they are confronted by something so huge that it will change their lives forever." In his view, the crux of Part Two is the great choral scene in which the citizens of Moscow sing their defiance: they've torched their own city, and swear revenge. "And this is what we're looking at in the papers every day at present. Reports about people in remote Afghan villages who had never heard of 11 September, and whose sky was suddenly full of bombers.
Susan Chilcott's Natasha may be off the bill, owing to the singer's recently discovered cancer, but we still have a formidable cast led by Simon Keenlyside, John Daszak, and, in the key role of Kutuzov, Willard White. While the Kirov's Kutuzov was sung by a tired old stager, ENO's will be, as Daniel puts it, typecast: "The character needs godly charisma, and a god-given voice – and that's what we've got." As he also points out, 70 per cent of his large cast is home-grown ENO talent, which these days is something to be proud of.
With the Coliseum's rebuild under way, and the next three years mapped out, Daniel agrees that it's time to take stock, so I ask what regrets he has about the record so far. Carefully choosing his words, he concedes that the controversial Italian season "had its detractors". "We didn't get the message across that we were putting out as much new work as possible. If you're only doing two new works a year, like Opera North, people are not so aware of your failures. But when new works are hitting the runway every two weeks, it's different. But I'm very delighted" – heavy emphasis – "that we staged Verdi's Requiem."
What about the universally derided Trovatore, which he and Nicholas Payne chose to direct themselves? "Yes, we didn't get it right." So they won't be reviving it? A pause, then: "At Opera North, we never used the word 'revival'. We called them 'restagings'." Will they bring in a professional director to do that? "Um... I'm not going to give you a proper answer, I'm going to be wishy-washy... We just didn't take a strong enough line through the work."
When I bring up Calixto Bieito's Don Giovanni, which provoked the most unanimous chorus of disapproval in living memory, Daniel stiffens with defiance. "I don't regret that at all. It brought in a completely new audience of people we hadn't seen before." But it was anti-musical! There were times when you couldn't hear Mozart, for the sound of tin cans being hurled about. "I completely agree, but if you'd come to the sixth performance as well as the first, you'd have seen a huge difference. Calixto comes from a theatrical tradition that is more chaotic and tentative than what we're used to – in some ways, he's more in tune with the improvisatory drama that Mozart himself envisaged."
Daniel adds that, whatever we critics think, Bieito will soon be on his way back with a production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. In every other respect, too, Daniel is bullish about the future. He bounds over to an architectural model to show how the ENO experience will be transformed for those who sit in the gods: "The most money is being spent on the people who pay least." Surtitles? "It's a very live issue – we debate it probably once a week – and there's no simple answer. The technology is so sophisticated that when we do come up with a solution, it will probably take a dozen alternative forms."
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And the repertoire won't stay still. "There's a genre we haven't yet invented, but that I want to look into, which is what an opera company could do with the world of musicals. I'm very impressed that Americans can say 'We'll put Harvey Milk on stage, or Jackie O', and the result is high-quality stuff. We don't do that in London – yet."
His other crusade concerns colour. "We haven't yet followed up the impact that people such as Willard White can have. Forty per cent of the population of this country is not English-white – thank god! On stage, there should be as many people from those groups as we can possibly get. There are people out there with golden voices – and who don't yet know it."
'War and Peace' opens tomorrow at the Coliseum, London WC2 (020-7632 8300, www.eno.org), until 28 Nov
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