The breathtaking spectacle of war between two of the world's largest armies proved to be no match for the intimacy of a girl's growth into womanhood, at least when that young woman's feelings are sung by Anna Netrebko, a dazzling young star with the Mariinsky Opera making her Metropolitan Opera debut in Prokofiev's War and Peace.
The Metropolitan Opera's production of the opera, directed by film and stage director Andrei Konchalovsky and conducted by Valery Gergiev, manages to transport the sweep of Tolstoy's massive novel to the stage, complete with marching armies, canon fire and the burning of Moscow.
While Tolstoy wove the many threads of the tale together, though, Prokofiev chose to separate them, with the first half of the opera focused on the love story of Natasha Rostova and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, while the second half is dominated by the novel's more epic scenes.
It is those scenes of war that are the most dazzling, making use of the domed stage designed specially for this opera, and powerful lighting effects that reach their peak when the people of Moscow set fire to the city to thwart Napoleon's advancing armies.
The rousing paens to the indomitable spirit of the Russian people would likely have been balm to a Soviet Union under attack from Nazi Germany when the opera was composed in 1941, but as beautiful as the music is — with Prokofiev employing Russian folk melodies and harmonies and jarring dissonance — the second act seems to go on and on, and it's hard not to long for Natasha's return.
Much of the reson for that is Netrebko, who is making her Metropolitan Opera debut.
While some of the other leads were clearly uncertain in their movements on the domed stage — which claimed one extra playing a French soldier, who lost his footing and tumbled off the stage into the protective net over the orchestra pit — Netrebko captured the nuance of a girl growing to womanhood in her acting, and her singing more than justified her worldwide reputation as one of the most brilliant young singers in opera.