“History,” wrote Napoleon in his memoirs, “is a set of lies agreed upon.” So is fiction. So is theater. In Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, at Ars Nova, composer Dave Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin swathe the audience in falsehoods and fibs, all set to music. Malloy has based his ambitious, open-hearted pop opera on a portion of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a tale of five aristocratic Russian families in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. Though Malloy and Chavkin never rival Tolstoy’s capacity for making fiction seem truer, better, more real than truth, their lies are never less than engaging, to say nothing of tuneful. Even Napoleon, whose portrait adorns the playing space, might agree.
Malloy is rather taller than that famed French general, though both share a tendency to plumpness and megalomania. The program credits Malloy with the music, lyrics, orchestrations, musical direction, and playing the titular Pierre, an indolent man ensnared in an unhappy marriage. (In a slight reversion to modesty, it does not mention that Malloy also plays piano and accordion.) But on Malloy, a shambling figure in an orange vest and green greatcoat, this egoism seems somehow endearing, a testament to his commitment to the project.
Not everyone would choose to adapt Tolstoy—all those philosophical digressions, all those pages, all those characters. In the opening song, Malloy cleverly acknowledges the challenge. The various characters emerge to invite audiences to refer to the synopsis and family tree: “It’s a complicated Russian novel/Everyone’s got nine different names/But look it up in your program/We’d appreciate it, thanks a lot.” This sly knowingness also brands the gentle funk of the second half opener, explaining literary conventions: “In 19th-century Russia we write letters/We write letters/We put down in writing/What is happening in our minds.”
But despite these commentaries—and one further number devoted to explaining the opera—most songs focus on slender plot and thin characters. Young Natasha (Phillipa Soo) and her cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford) have come to Moscow to wait for their fiancés, engaged fighting the French. Naïve and lonely, Natasha falls prey to the immoral Anatole (Lucas Steele) and his sluttish sister Hélène (Amber Gray), married to Malloy’s Pierre. There’s a duel, a kiss, a foiled elopement, an attempted suicide, which might seem enough material for a show, but Malloy typically encases the action in a verse or two, preferring to concentrate more on states of feeling, though the words and music distance the audience from these feelings.
For instance, he has his characters sing their emotional conditions, as when Natasha trills, “I blush happily” or “I blush scarlet.” (When not blushing, Natasha is often weeping.) It’s a nifty Brechtian flourish, but it suffers compared to Tolstoy’s intense psychological insight and compassion. And as Malloy’s intelligent music often better conveys these emotions than words would, these asides seem redundant.
Similarly, most of the cast seem to gesture to their roles rather than fully inhabit them, which suggests an aesthetic choice, mirroring that first song in which each character receives a handy mnemonic and little more: “Anatole is hot/Marya is old-school/Sonya is good/Natasha is young.” And yet, some performers occasionally and satisfyingly break this form, like Gray’s sinuous “Charming” or Ashford’s mournful “Sonya Alone.” Malloy, too, commands sympathy for his stout, bumbling Pierre, but Soo, truly lovely of face and voice, rarely registers as more than a muslin-clad vacancy, which may have been a directorial suggestion taken too far.
Yet director Chavkin (Malloy’s collaborator on the earlier, Obie-winning Three Pianos) gets much right, particularly the environmental staging (another playful contribution from Mimi Lien), situating the audience in some sort of Muscovite cabareta swirl of tables, banquettes, and platforms, which the characters move in and around. Each table comes topped with a bottle of vodka and a plate of dumplings and black bread. Nothing like 80 proof to generate goodwill. Though Malloy seems indifferent to the action, Chavkin ensures that something visual or musical happens every moment, sometimes involving the band (six musicians, plus assists from the actors) in the frolic.
Malloy and Chavkin are generous artists. Not only do they provide those Soviet snacks for the audience, but they make sure every character gets a turn in the spotlight, even Natasha’s fiancé’s father (Blake DeLong) and the troika driver (Paul Pinto), sometimes at the expense of plot and pace. With such care given to every figure and every tune, it’s fortunate Malloy chose only a small chunk of the novel to adapt, otherwise we spectators would be there all night. Then again, with vodka, dumplings, and a live band, would that be such a terrible thing? Can’t wait to hear how Malloy scores the burning of Moscow.