Staging an opera version of War and Peace, Tolstoy's classic Russian novel, is no easy feat. Composer Sergei Prokofiev wrote the score in 1941-1942 but did not live to see a fully staged version of his work. It was not until 1959 that the full opera was finally seen in Moscow. It took until 2002 for the Metropolitan Opera to present War and Peace this season, in a co-production with the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Set designer George Tsypin is no stranger to the subject matter. A Russian emigré living in New York, he says this production was a sort of homecoming. “When Valery Gergiev, the conductor, approached me I was very excited,” says Tsypin. “I haven't done Russian opera and it was like a lost memory. I studied the book of course in high school and saw an amazing Russian film from the 1960s. I knew it would be a challenge.”

set model photo courtesy George Tsypin

Tsypin also knew in advance that this production would travel, with engagements not only at the Mariinsky and the Met, but also Covent Garden, La Scala, Madrid, and eventually, Los Angeles in October 2002. So rather than an enormously complicated series of sets, he went for a simpler concept that effectively moves the opera through its various scenes.

“A lot of people have commented on the minimal design,” he says. “It may be a minimal idea, yet it was a challenge to design. After all, it is a Russian novel — it can't be too abstract.” To begin with, the opera has 13 different scenes, set in many different locations. Yet only at the Met has the full version been seen to date. “In St. Petersburg, it was only two-and-a-half-hours, like a movie, and directed with as much cinematic fluidity as possible,” says Tsypin, pointing out that the opera's director, Andrei Konchalovsky, is primarily a film director.

“Perhaps it was a more accessible spectacle,” says Tsypin of the earlier versions of the production. “But the critics asked how we could cut out scenes. The Met felt they might as well do the full version, so the scenes were put back little by little.”

The concept for the set encompasses the earth and the sky. “There is a famous monologue in the novel about the ‘tall sky,’ as Andrei is dying,” says Tsypin. “We wanted to show a large view of the sky to represent the universe with all the stars, and also show the destiny of people and family conflicts as characters come and go.”

To create a sense of the world, Tsypin designed a large wooden dome set on a turntable at the front edge of the stage. “It's like a fisheye in the movies that provides a wide-angle view. It feels like the world is on the edge of a precipice,” he says. The turntable helps move the action quickly from scene to scene, and it's also a metaphor for the rotation of the earth. “It helps make people look small against the large scale of the earth,” Tsypin adds. The dome used for the New York performances was built in the Metropolitan Opera shops, along with other scenic pieces and props, while some of the painted drops came from the Mariinsky Theatre shops in Russia.

Act I begins with the world of Natasha, the opera's heroine, whose world is childish — “like the inflamed imagination of a young girl,” notes Tsypin, who designed a stylized world with eight “glass” columns that dance about the stage and glow like real glass in the light. Built by R.A. Reed Productions, a scenic construction company in Portland, OR, the columns have computerized movement via traveler tracks that are hung on existing battens in each venue. “The columns can move to the right or the left and be positioned anywhere along the track,” says Rick Reed, the owner of R.A. Reed and project manager for War and Peace. “They can also fly out.”

The columns are 16" in diameter and 28' long, and built of ⅛"-thick, heavyweight plastic sheeting (used in the aircraft industry) that comes in rolls. “This was the best thing we could find to produce solid, seamless columns that are flameproof and somewhat durable,” says Reed. “The rolls are 5' wide, so we rolled them the other way to make the columns.”

"glass" columns move around the domed floor. Set model photo: courtesy George Tsypin

One of the design challenges for Reed was creating capitals for the columns that were not too big (the first attempts weighed 600lbs each and were too heavy to hang in the Mariinsky Theatre, so they were replaced with a lighter plastic version).

In Act II, which is filled with battle scenes and raging fires, the parquet floor is covered with bloodstained earth. “There is nothing onstage that cannot be removed quickly,” says Tsypin, who had to clear the decks for troops of marching armies and even Napoleon, who arrives on a white horse. “The dome eventually disintegrates,” adds the designer. “It splits via hydraulics to allow Napoleon to stand on the top, and we see dead bodies buried in the earth. It stays that way until the end of the opera, as if it were the basement of Moscow.”

Perhaps the most visually arresting moment in the production is the scene of a Moscow engulfed in flames. A series of seven “glass” churches in a panorama of Moscow were also built by R.A. Reed, using a combination of custom, triangular aluminum extrusion, mirrored acrylic, clear vinyl, and an elaborate rigging system that juxtaposed the sections of the churches at deliberate angles.

“George is in what I call his transparent period,” says Reed, referring to scenic elements he has built for Tsypin in the past, including a production of the opera Peony Pavilion, and the MTV Video Awards held at the Met in 1999. Reed's scenic elements were sent in sea containers by truck from Portland to New York, then shipped to Europe, and on to Russia.

The panorama is seen through an opaque Gerriets projection screen, with the churches seen in a blazing fire created by Elaine McCarthy's projections and kinetic lighting and fire effects by Jim Ingalls. “It was a pretty daring thing to do,” admits Tsypin. “We have almost $1 million in scenery behind the cyc. But you see the panorama three times, in the fire scene, in Andrei's memory of the ballroom with a dream vision of Moscow, and at the end as the people are ready to face the future.”

Elemental Projections

For McCarthy, the projection design for War and Peace provided a unique international experience. “It was a little daunting making it all happen in a foreign country,” she says. “There were cultural as well as language barriers, but of course George was speaking Russian and translating for Jim and me.”

Due to the travel schedules of her collaborators, McCarthy found herself making virtual presentations of her designs via the Internet. “It was a surprise to people once they saw them onstage,” she says. “The director said, ‘Whoa, is this really 120' wide? You won't see the actors.’” In fact, as a filmmaker Konchalovsky wanted the quality of film in the projected images. “I added more texture,” says McCarthy, “to make it more theatrical.”

Photo: Beth Bergman ©2002

The projections are used throughout most of the second act, except in Andrei's death scene. “It was more poetic at that moment with just the lighting and the glass columns from Act I that fly back in,” says McCarthy, who used four 6K PANI projectors with PIGI simple scrolls for a single layer of film. The projectors are used as two dissolve pairs, with each image on two screens with a slight overlap in the center. The images have their own cues to speed up, slow down, or run in the opposite direction. At times, both pairs of projectors are used together, but at different speeds, to create foreground and background as well as a sense of depth and dimension.

And what are the images? “A lot of clouds, as well as smoke and fire,” says McCarthy, who used a collage of sources to make up the Russian sky. “The cloud shapes are realistic to a degree, yet also very theatrical,” she explains. “The sky in St. Petersburg is different, like a frigid Russian sky. I wish I had gone there earlier to take pictures, but in the end we weren't too far off the mark. It seems like the sky goes on forever over the set, which represents the apex of the world.”

In the fire scene, McCarthy added texture to the lighting and fire effects, with the two pairs of projectors used together yet scrolling in opposite directions, with the images spiraling toward the center. “Photorealistic fire didn't make sense,” she says. “The idea was to create a strange, disorienting feeling to echo what was happening onstage, with the turntable spinning. It's about the confusion and craziness of war and the absurdity of it all.”

Ingalls' lighting also added texture to the production, as well as helping to set the scene for each of the various locales: the ballrooms, drawing rooms, and battlefields of the opera. “Jim used our standard house rig with a lot of large sources added,” notes Wayne Chouinard, resident lighting designer at the Met. These include seven Juliat 2.5k HMI profile spots hung on the overhead bridges, three 4k Arri fresnels with Lichtechnik color scrollers, eight Mole Richardson 5k fresnels with Wybron color scrollers, 12 Strand 5k fresnels, and many Strand 2k fresnels, in addition to the ETC Source Fours in the house rig. A fifth Pani projector was used front-of-house for snow effects.

The color palette ranged from a cool family of blue and color-correction filters (Lee 200/double ctb; Lee 079/just blue; Lee 132/medium blue; Lee 197/Alice blue; Lee 201/full ct blue; Lee 236/HMI to tungsten; and Lee 237/CID to tungsten) as well as a fiery family of hot hues (Lee 179/chrome orange; Lee 152/pale gold; Lee 147/apricot; Lee 105/orange; Lee 104/deep amber; and Lee 164/flame red).

“This is one of our biggest productions in terms of lighting,” says Chouinard, who indicates that there were 12 Entertainment Technology IPS dimmers built into the domed floor of the set, as well as five Lycian 1290LXT followspots used from front-of-house. With almost 5,000 costumes designed by Tatiana Noginova, costume designer for the Mariinsky Theatre (home to the Kirov ballet and opera companies), the production is no slacker in terms of costumes either.

“It has been like a work in progress,” says Tsypin. “The fire scene gets better and better every time. It was the best at the Met so far. There was more distance so Jim could get the lighting to really work well.” Tsypin also points out that in Russian “peace” and “world” are the same word, so perhaps Tolstoy was writing about war and the world. In any case, with its scenario of lost love and great wars, the opera tells a story that is at times very intimate, while also offering a rather monumental view of Russian history.