War and Peace synopsis
Music by Sergei Prokofiev
Libretto by the composer and Mira Mendelson after Tolstoy
First performed: 1944
Part One: Peace
The Russian people affirm their strength and ability to repel enemy invaders.
Scene 1 The Rostov estate, May 1809. A moonlit night
Prince Andrei Bolkonsky is visiting the Rostovs at their house in the country. Disillusioned with life following the death of his wife, his thoughts are interrupted by the sound of Natasha Rostova and her cousin Sonya, at their bedroom window, revelling in the beauty of the spring night. Andrei is captivated by Natasha. Tolstoy: II/3/2
Scene 2 A ballroom in St Petersburg, New Year’s Eve, 1809
Natasha arrives at her first ball. The guests include an unhappy Pierre Bezhukov with his promiscuous, Francophile wife Hélène, Hélène’s brother Anatole and his fellow-officer Dolokhov, and Andrei Bolkonsky. Pierre encourages his friend Andrei to dance with Natasha. As they waltz, it becomes clear that a powerful attraction exists between them and Andrei dreams of marriage to Natasha. But Anatole Kuragin has also fallen under Natasha’s spell.
Scene 3 Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky’s house in Moscow, January 1811
Natasha and Andrei are now engaged to be married. Andrei’s father, Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, considers the match beneath his son and has insisted that he spend a year abroad in the hope that the relationship will falter. Natasha and her father pay a call on the elderly prince; but he refuses to see them. Instead, his daughter Princess Marya receives them with some embarrassment. Suddenly Andrei’s father barges in, wearing his dressing gown, feigning surprise at the sight of visitors. His apologies are laden with sarcasm and having coldly surveyed Natasha, he withdraws.
Scene 4 A party at the Bezukhovs’ house, the following Sunday
While offering her congratulations to Natasha on her engagement, Hélène confides that her brother Anatole has fallen in love with her. Anatole declares his feelings for Natasha, handing her a letter in which he threatens to kill himself unless his love is reciprocated. Despite Sonya’s warning about Anatole’s reputation, Natasha weakens in her resolve to be faithful to Andrei.
Scene 5 Dolokhov’s apartment, the following Thursday
With Dolokhov’s help, Anatole plans his elopement with Natasha that night.
Scene 6 At Marya Akhrosimova’s house, the same night
Natasha is staying with Sonya at her godmother’s. She nervously awaits Anatole’s arrival. Their elopement, however, is foiled: when Anatole appears, he is met by a servant and makes his escape. Marya Akhrosimova scolds her goddaughter for such unacceptable behaviour and blames it on her friendship with Hélène and her circle. Natasha remains inconsolable until Pierre arrives; learning what has happened, he reveals that Anatole is already married. Forced to accept Anatole’s true character and realizing that her engagement to Andrei is over, Natasha is distraught. Pierre confesses that, were he not already married, he would be the first to offer her his hand in marriage.
Tolstoy: II/5/17–19, 22
Scene 7 Pierre Bezukhov’s study, later the same night
Pierre confronts Anatole, demanding that he return Natasha’s letters, leave Moscow and never mention the affair to anyone. Anatole, with the help of a bribe, agrees. Colonel Denisov arrives with news: the French army has invaded Russia.
Part Two: War
Scene 8 Before the Battle of Borodino, late August 1812
Preparations for the battle with the French are underway. A chance meeting between Andrei, now immersed in the affairs of war, and Denisov, who had himself once hoped to marry Natasha, provokes in Andrei fond if bitter memories of Natasha. Pierre, still a civilian, has come to observe the battle. As the Russian army parades before Field Marshal Kutuzov, the first shots are heard.
Tolstoy: III/2/15, 20
Scene 9 The Shevardino redoubt during the Battle of Borodino
Napoleon and his generals watch the battle’s progress. He is puzzled at his inability to secure the rapid victory that has been the hallmark of his earlier campaigns, and reluctantly sends reinforcements to the frontline.
Scene 10 A peasant hut in Fili, September 1812
The Battle of Borodino, in which both sides have sustained enormous losses, has not halted Napoleon’s advance on Moscow, and Kutuzov and his generals debate whether the city should be surrendered in order to save the army and the country. Kutuzov decides to abandon Moscow to the French.
Scene 11 A street in Moscow, September 1812
Moscow, now under French occupation, has been abandoned by the army, the aristocracy and most of its citizens; the French army is looting deserted houses. Pierre has remained behind, intent on assassinating Napoleon. He meets the Rostovs’ housekeeper and their maid, and has news of Natasha and her family. People of Moscow start setting fire to the city, and Pierre is arrested on suspicion of arson. He is reprieved from the firing squad at the last moment and befriends Karataev, a fellow prisoner. Napoleon is appalled at the Muscovites’ actions.
Tolstoy: III/3/13, 17, 19, 24–5, 33–4; III/4/1, 12–13
Scene 12 A village outside Moscow
The Rostovs have helped evacuate many wounded soldiers from Moscow, among them Andrei. Natasha goes secretly to find him in the middle of the night. Andrei, delirious with pain, forgives her everything and together they imagine the life they might have enjoyed.
Scene 13 On the Smolensk road, late October 1812
The French army, which has abandoned Moscow, retreats. Among the prisoners of war are Pierre and Karataev. Exhausted by the march, the latter is shot when he can no longer keep up. Pierre and the other prisoners are liberated by a partisan group under the command of Denisov and Dolokhov. Pierre, hearing of Andrei’s death, has a glimpse of possible future happiness with Natasha. Field Marshal Kutuzov arrives and everyone celebrates victory.
Tolstoy: IV/3/12–14; IV/4/6
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