The many pleasures of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, a new electropop opera based on sections of Tolstoy’s War and Peace now playing at Ars Nova, arrive early on in the evening and, for the most part, carry through its two-and-three-quarters hours of Russian-tinged musical drama.
Upon entering Ars Nova’s main space, which has been transformed by scenic designer Mimi Lien into a red-drenched Russian-style cabaret with banquettes and table seating, it’s clear that this won’t be just any night at the theatre. There’s unlimited Tito’s vodka at each table, as well as vegetarian dumplings and bread, included as part of the price of admission.
If the seating is a bit cramped in some spots and the shortage of restrooms in the building is as irritating as ever, it’s worth enduring these elements to experience first-hand this unique theatrical event, in which the performers overtake the room, performing around the edges of the space and throughout a central clearing, immersing the audience in the experience of the piece.
From the get-go, Natasha shows its quirky hand; in a brilliantly concise opening number composer-lyricist Dave Malloy, who also plays Pierre, acquaints the audience with his characters through schoolroom-style name-game lyrics, repeating adjectives about Natasha (who is young), Sonya (who is good), Marya (who is old-school), Anatole (who is hot), and others, ending each refrain with the central fact that Andrei, Natasha’s intended, isn’t there. It’s impossible not to quote some of Malloy’s pithy lyrics; the song continues, bitingly:
And this is all in your program
You are at the opera
Gonna have to study up a little bit
If you wanna keep with the plot
Cuz 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
There’s a quirky, inviting quality to the tone of the piece, much like that of the Public Theater’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, in which historical and literary themes collide with contemporary vernacular and musical styles in highly theatrical, mostly effective ways.
The plot, which concerns the beautiful young Natasha, who’s engaged to the beardy, absent Andrei but who falls in love with the handsome, married rogue Anatole, has plenty of operatic twists and turns. Malloy has found intriguing ways to dramatize the introspective, character-based subtleties of Russian literature, in which lengthy descriptions often trump eventful plot lines.
Characters in this beautifully composed piece sing often, achingly and at length about their feelings. There’s a rhapsodic quality to the melodies, which propel the piece forward rather well, even if Malloy’s lyrics occasionally repeat themselves maddeningly, particularly in the more electro-tinged numbers. The piece begins with mostly acoustic sounds — strings and piano — and veers partway through the first act toward more synthesized dance-infused rhythms. There’s also an inspired theatricalization of the experience of going to the opera. Following some strange, almost unearthly utterances resembling operatic sound from some curiously overdressed figures, Natasha exclaims:
Grotesque and amazing
I cannot follow the opera
Or even listen to the music
I see painted cardboard
Queerly dressed actors
Moving and singing so strangely in the lights
So false and unnatural
I’m ashamed and amused
Though its first act intrigues and is full of beautifully observed snatches like this one, it’s also weighed down with a bit too much exposition, particularly as the central illicit romance between Natasha and Anatole begins, steeped as it is in love-soaked cliches. The piece really takes flight in its second act, when we finally see some of the tumult inherent in Tolstoy’s tightly woven web of characters.
On the outskirts of Natasha and Anatole’s relationship is Anatole’s brother-in-law Pierre, who ultimately comes to Natasha’s rescue in the eleventh hour. Malloy’s presence onstage is just right — warm and well-sung. His confident, earthy voice has some of the richness of Springsteen’s, with a smoky Dylan-infused curl around the edges.
Aside from Malloy, the entire cast is made up of uniformly strong singer-actors who provide strong support for the composer’s challenging score. Phillipa Soo is an absolute revelation as Natasha: beautiful, conflicted, and complex. Lucas Steele has a smooth, romantic swagger as Anatole. Amelia Workman as Natasha’s godmother, Marya, possesses a smoky, sultry energy, as does Amber Gray as Pierre’s wife, Helene.
As Natasha’s cousin Sonya, Brittain Ashford, a bit tentative in the first act, lets forth a flood of emotion after the intermission with her aria, “Sonya Alone,” in which she expresses her devotion to Natasha’s reputation. “I will protect your name and your heart,” she sings with an achingly beautiful voice that stopped the crowd slack-jawed in awe the night I attended, “because I miss my friend.” Ms. Ashford, who makes this number the standout of an already strong production, possesses an otherworldly voice not unlike Regina Spektor’s mashed up with Joni Mitchell’s.
With mostly effective direction by Rachel Chavkin (I would occasionally have preferred more literal enactments of the sung lyrics in some scenes) and period-ish costumes by Tony-winner Paloma Young, it’s impossible not to be enveloped by Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. It’s a bit maddening at times, but it’s the kind of piece that, like Sleep No More and other unique shows, absolutely must been seen, if only to form one’s own opinion. Clearly, the individual elements of the piece are brilliant. I can imagine audience members might love or hate the piece based on individual prejudices — but its tone is so distinctive, and the creators’ decisions are bold enough that the risks it takes should pay off for most of those who keep an open mind.
Much of the opera is spent awaiting any mention of the piece’s titular comet. By the time it comes in the final moments of the evening, it’s fairly hard not to have been transported to a place of wonderment not unlike Pierre’s at the sight of this burning celestial body. Pierre’s sighting, two hundred years in the past chronologically, feels as immediately startling as any closing image a contemporary writer could have chosen. As a piece of theatre, Natasha is likely to leave a trail in one’s mind not unlike that of Pierre’s comet. You may be in tears by its arrival in the opera, and you’ll still be thinking about it in the days to come: the mark of a truly challenging piece of theatre.