DAVID STOUT IN PROKOFIEV'S WAR AND PEACE
CHRISTOPHER MORLEY TALKS TO DAVID STOUT, STARRING AS NAPOLEON IN PROKOFIEV'S WAR AND PEACE
Welsh National Opera's current production of Prokofiev's War and Peace is a huge testimony to the strength of WNO as a company theatre of the highest order (I saw it in Cardiff at the end of September). Its squad of principals multi-casts dazzlingly, its production team achieves wonders of stage-craft, its orchestra delivers this wonderful, multi-coloured score with a total sense of unanimous commitment, and the chorus is, as ever, magnificent.
And what choruses these are, surging with a patriotic devotion to Mother Russia that could easily be equated with Welshness here in the Principality. At times we are reminded of the protectionist fervour of Wagner's Mastersingers, and indeed, the saviour, Field-Marshal Kutusov (the heartwarming Simon Bailey, who also multicasts as one of Napoleon's nasties) is accoladed like Hans Sachs in that opera.
Tomas Hanus paces the score (such resonances of Prokofiev's ballets, symphonies and films) judiciously, and David Pountney's direction brings impact after impact, especially through its resource to back-drop footage from the stunning 1966 Bondarchuk film of War and Peace.
Another triumph of multicasting comes with David Stout's Napoleon, emerging from several other roles with make-up brilliantly applied, and chillingly real as the ambitious warrior-emperor who already envisages his ultimate defeat.
David has such a wide range of operatic roles under his belt, I comment. How easy would it be to summon one up were he called upon as last-minute replacement to cover a casualty?
"Good question" he smiles.
"The 'jump in' seems to be happening more and more. My experience with memorising roles is if it takes a great deal of work to make it stick, it usually stays stuck. I have a few characters that I could probably summon up at short notice, such as Leporello (Don Giovanni) and Marcello (La Bohème). I have performed them a lot of late - and a few curious entities like the Dark Fiddler in Delius' Romeo and Juliet. It's on my aeroplane iphone playlist. Fortunate, as I'm taking him to the Concertgebouw with Sir Mark Elder in the run up to Christmas."
War and Peace is rarely performed, despite it being such a fantastic opera (I reviewed the UK premiere at the Coliseum in 1972). David is playing multiple roles in it. Will these stay in his muscle-mental memory for possible use in the future?
"Napoleon is certainly in the memory because I have the opportunity in the production to tie the music and text with a colourful representation of the character. The same is true for Dolokhov in the scene where he helps Anatole to elope with Natasha. Denisov is more complicated in that I have to dance the mazurka 'like a feather' and then fly around various parts of the stage (in heavy thigh length boots) uttering the odd phrase and counting like crazy. I sit with the score before every performance revising this. It goes to show that it's not necessarily the iconic, standout roles that require the most attention, memorisation and effort!"
Did playing multiple roles necessitate David's having to participate in more rehearsals than usual?
"Simply put, yes. But with that increased workload came a great comradely vibe as many of us were multi-roling and, at times, cluelessness as when we were supposed to appear and in which costume. The professional dancers were particularly kind and patient. I suppose there were just as many rehearsals as, say, when I perform Leporello or Figaro. It's good to be busy when you are away from home!"
I have seen David Stout perform in a range of contemporary opera and concert music. How much does he enjoy this involvement?
"Contemporary music has different guises. John Joubert's Jane Eyre was tonal, melodic and lyrical and a joy to learn and sing: whereas Andre Tchaikovsky's Merchant of Venice was a horror to learn and memorise but a joy to perform. I suppose each piece has it's challenges.
"I've recently performed the role of the Abbot/Astrologer in Britten's Burning Fiery Furnace for Scottish Opera and only had a week to rehearse. Despite it being a complex format I was amazed at how quickly the music was at my disposal. I was terrified at first. I suppose that Britten should take the credit for that. I'm still amazed that I managed to learn the Buddha in Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream. Pali was not a language that came easily!
"So, do I enjoy it? Yes. I think that just as much fun, effort and strife goes into learning contemporary music as does learning a large Verdi or Puccini role. The difference is that the audience has a good idea of the melodic line in 'grand opera' and the quality of instrument that is required to perform it with finesse. That takes more work on the technical side and minute attention to linguistic detail. Contemporary music is more of a blank slate. Provided that you adhere as closely to what the composer demands then it is difficult to criticise the performer's commitment.
"War and Peace is a phenomenal opera and brings out the best of Welsh National Opera," David continues.
"Fine playing from the orchestra; excellent choral scenes; astounding costumes and virtuosic solo performances. It might be a long evening, but the richness and brilliance of Prokofiev's writing deserves an outing and I applaud David Pountney's determination that we have this opportunity to put it on stage at the Hippodrome."
* At Birmingham Hippodrome November 17 (6.30pm). Running-time 4 hours.