The Metropolitan Opera premiere of Prokofiev’s War and Peace took place on February 14, 2002, in a co-production that originated at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre on March 11, 2000. A little known fact is that the Met had planned to perform War and Peace as early as the 1943-44 season. The first published version of the opera appeared in Russia in 1943. The correspondence of Edward Johnson, general manager of the Met at the time, contains a letter of May, 1943, that states, "The Editors of Prokofieff’s ‘War and Peace’ assure us that this new work of the Russian composer will be available for next season, but advise us also that it may not be produced until it has appeared in Russia." A Bolshoi premiere in 1943-44 was in the works, and, at the suggestion of Amrus [the publishers in the U.S.], the Met cabled Moscow in September 1943, pleading for the orchestra score and materials to be sent in hopes of staging the work later that same season. The terse reply from Maxim Litvinow at the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs was "Problem outside my province but am informed that composer wishes opera performed first in Moscow and Amrus should know it regards". The opera at this stage was composed in eleven scenes and a choral epigraph. It was performed only incomplete and in concert version in Moscow, and not until 1944 (seven scenes) and 1945 (nine scenes).
The Met had not given up hope, however. Johnson brought up the possibility of performing War and Peace at a press conference before the 1945-46 season, stating that the score was on its way. Something must have arrived because a couple of excerpts were performed in New York at the American-Soviet Cultural Cooperation conference in late 1945. But by March of 1946 problems persisted. The intention had always been to do the opera in English, and no good translation existed. The score had now been revised and expanded to thirteen scenes and would, supposedly, need to be presented in two evenings. This was very awkward for the Met’s subscription schedule. Also the publisher’s royalty was initially more than the Met wanted to pay, and the post-war material shortages made the construction of so much scenery difficult.
Some of these problems were overcome, and in December 1946, the Met finally secured performance rights for War and Peace. Yet, a month later the Met board minutes reflect new problems because "the artistic branch of the Soviet Government had suddenly become cautious about the dangers of presenting this great Russian work without adequate preparation." Meanwhile the first "Peace" half (eight scenes) of the work had been premiered with considerable success at Leningrad’s Maly Theatre. The second "War" half was being prepared for performance there later in 1947. After a dress rehearsal in July, however, the authorities blocked its performance. The artistic atmosphere had been growing steadily more repressive in 1946 and ‘47, and clearly the government was "cautious" about more than "adequate preparation." Prokofiev revised the work again deleting the two scenes, nine and eleven, that were most problematic with the censors, as well as the epigraph and scene seven. His efforts were to no avail. Prokofiev was officially denounced by the Soviet government in February 1948, along with Shostakovich and Khatchaturian, and would never see War and Peace performed in its entirety.
Back at the Met, discussions continued about producing War and Peace. In October 1947, Johnson and the board’s production committee decided to try and perform the opera in concert by the end of the 1947-48 season. The Met’s financial position was precarious, and a new production of the Ring cycle was putting a considerable burden on available funds. When the production committee met again in February 1948, a budget analysis showed only $8,000 available for War and Peace. A press release went out stating that the Prokofiev opera would be performed early in the 1948-49 season, with exact date and cast to be announced. The Soviets’ denunciation of their greatest composers had caused an uproar of protest in the West. In reporting the Met’s plans The New York Times felt compelled to point out "No political considerations, it was said authoritatively, were involved in the initial decision to do the opera or in yesterday’s announced reaffirmation that it would be presented as soon as all the artistic problems were met."
The Met finally gave the project up in October 1948, the board minutes noting that "inasmuch as the materials necessary had not been furnished in a usable form, and that it would be impossible even if they were so furnished to prepare and mount the opera this season either in a concert version or otherwise." Prokofiev continued to revise the score until 1952, ultimately returning to the thirteen scene plan. He died in March 1953. The final, published version reflects his last revisions, and was finally performed, with many cuts, in 1955 at the Maly Theatre (eleven scenes), at the Stanislavsky -Nemirovich-Dachenko Theatre, Moscow (thirteen scenes) in 1957, and finally, more or less complete, at the Bolshoi in 1959.
The Bolshoi brought its production of War and Peace to the Metropolitan in 1975, under the baton of Mark Ermler. The English National Opera performed it in English during its Met engagement in June 1984.
The musical style of War and Peace is quite different from that of The Gambler, Prokofiev’s opera composed between 1915 and 1917, and premiered at the Met last season. Whereas The Gambler was strictly through-composed in an attempt to render the dialogue as close as possible to a play in music, War and Peace includes melodic lyricism, heroic and genre elements, and a more "classical" operatic approach. In his article on Prokofiev for The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Richard Taruskin writes: "Despite all vicissitudes, then, Prokofiev’s Soviet operas do not necessarily represent an unmitigated stylistic impoverishment. Setting War and Peace, by now a repertory item, alongside The Gambler, or especially The Fiery Angel, one can see the modifications he made in his methods and resources in response to external demands as introducing a new versatility into his operatic technique, legitimately enriching what had been a rather dogmatic and one-sided approach to musical drama."
--Peter Clark, July 2001