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Seventy Years On, War Over Prokofiev's 'War And Peace' Still Rages

On October 16, 1944, a private Moscow audience attended the modest premiere of an opera by one of the Soviet Union's most successful composers, Sergei Prokofiev.

The opera was "War and Peace." Based on Lev Tolstoy's epic novel about Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia, Prokofiev had hoped his opera would resonate with audiences enduring a devastating new invasion by Nazi Germany in World War II.

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But the debut -- which featured a shortened selection of just eight scenes, largely focusing on the romantic tribulations of the novel's young heroine, Natasha Rostova -- came and went with little fanfare.

"War and Peace" would not be performed in full, and on stage, until 1957. And by then, it was a very different opera, full of military bombast and swelling patriotic anthems:

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Prokofiev, whose compositions include 20th-century classics like "The Love for Three Oranges," "Lieutenant Kije," and "Peter and the Wolf," was seen by some as an obedient member of the Soviet elite. After living abroad for nearly 30 years, he voluntarily returned to Moscow during Josef Stalin's purges and went on to receive six state awards for compositions, like his "Piano Sonata No. 7," deemed flattering to the regime.

But "War and Peace" proved a stumbling block for Prokofiev, who disappointed the Politburo's culture bosses by focusing on the intimate personal relationships in Tolstoy's work rather than the vast historical scope of the Napoleonic wars.

In 1946, the so-called Zhdanov Doctrine was issued, compelling artists and writers to conform to Communist Party theory or risk persecution. Two years later, Prokofiev -- together with Dmitry Shostakovich, Aram Khachaturian, and other composers -- was denounced for formalism. Eight of his works were banned from performance, and Prokofiev himself was forced to acknowledge his alleged errors in a public letter to the Union of Composers.

'I No Longer Care'

Despite such setbacks, Prokofiev continued to work on revising "War and Peace," pumping up the battlefield drama and scaling back the emotional focus on Natasha and the men in her life: Count Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky.

The main terminal of the Sergei Prokofiev International Airport in eastern Ukraine, destroyed in fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russsian rebels
The main terminal of the Sergei Prokofiev International Airport in eastern Ukraine, destroyed in fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russsian rebels

The authorities played a backseat role, inserting lyrics and urging Prokofiev to make real-life Mikhail Kutuzov, the legendary field marshal credited with driving Napoleon's forces out of Russia, resemble Stalin.

Asked how a composer of his stature could bear such meddling, Prokofiev -- deeply in debt and in increasingly poor health -- reportedly said, "I no longer care."

Prokofiev never lived to see "War and Peace" receive its Soviet seal of approval. In a bizarre twist of fate, he died on March 5, 1953, the same day that Stalin's death was announced.

News of the 61-year-old composer's demise was largely overshadowed by the official outpouring of grief over the Soviet leader. Prokofiev's neighbors were forced to provide potted plants for his grave when all the flowers in the city were used for Stalin's burial.

Quiet, More Intimate Look

When the revised "War and Peace" finally premiered in 1957, it was a massive, 4 1/2-hour production, full of bombastic musical interludes and the character of Napoleon replaced with a caricature of Adolf Hitler. It took another two years for the opera to be performed at Moscow's preeminent theater, the Bolshoi.

Seventy years after its original premiere, the opera continues to be performed on stages in Russia and abroad, including a weeklong run earlier this month in China.

But while Russian performances have largely stuck to the more sensational revised version, some opera companies abroad have attempted to pare the production back to what Prokofiev originally intended -- a quieter, more intimate look at the lives of Tolstoy's aristocratic protagonists.

In 2010, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama staged the world premiere of Prokofiev's original work, cutting out 90 minutes of battle scenes and surging choruses to reveal the composer's vision of a leaner, more character-driven work.

The production, however, was not to everyone's taste.

"The problem is that Prokofiev is often a good deal more convincing in...patriotic mode," a "Guardian" review suggested. "It is the choruses and patriotic moments of the 'War' section that hold the attention."

Russia appears inclined to agree, particularly in a wartime season when nationalist fervor is once again a Kremlin priority.

It's ironic, then, that the casualties of the Ukraine conflict include the Sergei Prokofiev International Airport in Donetsk -- a structure, now in ruins, named in honor of the Ukraine-born composer whose tormented "War and Peace" has become a paean to Russian military might.

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