Can we please have a one-year moratorium on Christmas song covers next year? Chicago's WLIT 93.9, decided to replace its usual lit(e) fare with nonstop Christmas songs between Thanksgiving and December 25th, and flipping past it amidst the other car presets over the past month has subjected me to near overdose levels of holiday treacle. Is there any lower form of art than the opportunistic pop Christmas song cover? If you don't agree, I beg you to audition Jessica Simpson's "Little Drummer Boy." We need to take a year and think about what we've done.
So, I saw War & Peace and Iphigenie on a short jaunt to NY the week before Xmas. I feel J said what needed to be said about I 'n T, and anyhow, its done, so you can't act on my praises if you missed it. Suffice it to say, any equivocations about the piece following last year's Lyric version were entirely dashed, and I am embarking on an Iphigenie teach-in of one. I think maybe the super-abstract Lyric production just had me confused, and I was taking it out on the opera. Ditto to Maury's fanatic praise for the Wadsworth team.
You do, however, still have a chance to see W n' P, or V i M as it were, and you really should. As a piece of theatre I've decided that War and Peace is a bit like the Les Miz of opera. Which in my book is a great thing. Both are improbable attempts to satisfy our desires to see huge works as movies, but somehow they've ended up on the stage. While that should be a recipe for disaster, both succeed with a remarkable economy of storytelling and stagecraft that enables the enormous structure to skip rather than sag.
That said, Les Miz compacted its story by simply excising things most of its audience will never know are missing, while Prokofiev's audience knows all 1K+ pages backwards and forwards. On the one hand, he gets to gloss over explication chores, since everyone knows what's going on, on the other hand, the audience gets to keep score. On the third hand, is there any chance a War and Peace opera will be anything more than pantomime to an audience rereading it in their heads?
The conclusion of this War and Peace stops somewhere short, or to the side, of the book's final conclusion--the final choral orgy (chorgy?) of national feeling comes off like so much propaganda. Although it is awfully rousing propaganda, to be sure. As for the rest, the real magic is not whether he says anything new about it, but that he makes it come alive in the music. I am totally in love with the musical language of War and Peace--it's narrative power, its lyricism, its marvelous textures--it's a powerfully modern version of everything one loves in Tchaikovsky's opera writing.
As for the Met show itself, it's a very strong, if not particularly distinctive cast. Vocally, Kim Begley didn't quite have the goods to make Pierre's lyric passages soar, but the acting was great. Pierre is far and away the biggest dramatic challenge of the show, and Begley got the nuances and thoughtfulness as well as the despair in Act II. I was quite partial to Alexej Markov's Andrei, who sounded wonderful in addition to looking like an Andrei straight from central casting.
Oh PS, I was sitting in extreme left orchestra row *C* thanks to student tickets and a mean wintry mix going on outside that evening. Which is definitely closer than I've ever sat before. Pros: the visceral thrill of how loud people's voices are projecting at the Met, and a chance to see the acting up close. Cons: the acting up close and some loss of stage magic, being able to look straight into the cavernous flies. This range was especially unkind to Marina Poplavskaya's Natasha, who suffered from a severe case of APFD (all purpose flitting disorder). It might have played well in Fam Circ row X, but up close it was pretty bothersome. Pretty voice though.
Now let us talk about Samuel Ramey. The reviews I've seen have ragged on him for excessive wobble and old man's voice, with some grudging praise for his still formidable presence. Not being a fan of old man wobble (I'm looking at you J-Mo) I was ready to dislike this. But people. If Kutuzov is not the role crusty aging basses should play in the twilight of their careers then what the hell is??? Yes, there was wobbling. And it was magnificent. Ramey rams through that wobble with shocking bravery, and Kutuzov's big monologue arias end up being the most memorable numbers in the show, heartbreaking and staggering in their evocation of the ancient general shouldering all the nobility and suffering of his beloved nation. It is vocal acting of the first order.
Love the production, too. Tsypin and co. have on their ambitious yet respectful hats, relative to some other outings. And honestly, the show is so complicated that trying to work in a more aggressive design would have likely just cluttered the field. That said, they don't disappoint in the burning of Moscow sequence, which includes some of their trademark wowza stagecraft.
Looks like the last show this Thursday is sold out, but do yourself a favor and wait on line or wrangle tix some other way if you can. It shouldn't be missed.