War and Peace (Op. 91) (Война и мир in Russian, Voyna i mir in transliteration) is an opera in two parts (an Epigraph and thirteen scenes), sometimes arranged as five acts, by Sergei Prokofiev to a Russian libretto by the composer and Mira Mendelson, based on the novel of the same name by Leo Tolstoy.
Mendelson and Prokofiev’s original scheme for the libretto of the opera envisaged eleven scenes, and Prokofiev began composing the music in the summer of 1941, spurred on by the German invasion of the Soviet Union which began on June 22, 1941. The description “lyric-dramatic scenes” in the libretto accurately suggests both a homage to Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and an emphasis on individuals and their emotions rather than on the bigger picture of a country at war.
A piano score was completed by the summer of 1942 (two scenes having been changed from the original version), and it was submitted to the Soviet Union’s Committee on the Arts. The Committee intimated that the Part 2 (War) scenes needed a more patriotic and heroic emphasis, and Prokofiev, who had already orchestrated Part 1 (Peace), obediently added marches , choruses and other material to Part 2. In addition, he composed the choral Epigraph, which emphasises the Russian people’s defiance in the face of the enemy.
Plans were drawn up for a 1943 première at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, to be directed by Sergei Eisenstein and conducted by Samuil Samosud. Nothing came of this project, although a private performance of eight scenes with piano accompaniment took place at the Moscow Actors’ Centre on October 16, 1944, and a public concert performance of nine scenes, conducted by Samosud, was given in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on June 7, 1945. The first staged performance was of a newly extended seven-scene version of Part 1 (what is now Scene 2 having been added at Samosud’s suggestion), together with Scene 8, the first scene of Part 2. This took place on June 12, 1946, at the Maly Theatre in Leningrad, again conducted by Samosud. Part 2, also with an additional scene (Scene 10), was to be performed there in July 1947, but after the Dress Rehearsal no public performances were given, “for reasons beyond the control of the theatre and the composer”.
Following the Zhdanov decree of February 1948, Prokofiev started work on a shortened single-evening version of the opera, at the same time making various revisions to his original scheme, although the thirteen-scene framework remained. This version was first performed on May 26, 1953 at the Teatro Comunale, Florence, conducted by Artur Rodziński, two months after the composer’s death. Scenes 2 and 9 were, however, omitted. The Russian première of this version was given at the Maly Theatre, Leningrad, on April 1, 1955, conducted by Eduard Grikurov, in this case with the omission of Scenes 7 and 11. All thirteen scenes (but with cuts) were eventually first performed together on November 8, 1957 at the Stanislavski-Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre in Moscow, under the baton of Alexander Shaverdov. On December 15, 1959, the thirteen scenes and Epigraph were finally staged uncut (conducted by Alexander Melik-Peshayev at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, although this was preceded in the United States by an NBC telecast conducted by Peter Herman Adler on January 13, 1957.
The first British performance was a Leeds Festival concert performance at Leeds Town Hall on April 19, 1967 (conductor Edward Downes). The first British staged performance was by Sadlers’ Wells Opera on October 11, 1972, and the first American staging by the Opera Company of Boston on May 8, 1974. In other countries, the opera was first performed in Germany (Leipzig) in 1961, Croatia (Zagreb) in 1961 and Australia (the opening performance at the Sydney Opera House) in 1973.