Natasha Rostova at Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable

Margo Rosen, Columbia University

Although much has been written about the opera scene in War and Peace, the musical sources of the opera described by Tolstoj have received little attention. The scene has been cited most often for Tolstoj’s development of the perspective known as “ostranenie” (estrangement) and as evidence of Tolstoj’s deep-seated antipathy toward grand artistic spectacle and his conflicted attitude toward the power of art. Curiously, the opera Tolstoj describes has been traditionally dismissed by scholars as clearly not a single, historically existing work, but a conflation – trenchant, grotesque, or even ignorant, depending on the critic’s own aims – of the clichés of French grand opera popular in Tolstoj’s own time. It seems odd that Tolstoj would take such a relatively cavalier approach to the scene he felt to be the “most difficult place and the knot of the whole novel” (Tolstoj, v. 61, 184). I will argue here that virtually all the elements of the opera seen by Nataša are present in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable. Moreover, the thematic material of Robert (as I will hereafter refer to the opera) parallels and enriches in many ways central themes of War and Peace, and in particular of this “knot” of the entire work. Following the excellent research by eminent Soviet music historian A. A. Gozenpud (see bibliography), I will consider the development of the opera scene in Tolstoj’s drafts and compare the opera described by Tolstoj to the kind of opera produced in the first decade of the nineteenth century, and to Robert. In contrast to Gozenpud, however, I will argue that Tolstoj ultimately based his opera scene almost entirely on Robert, the pivotal and hugely popular father of French grand opera. Comparing Tolstoj’s opera to the score and libretto of Robert, I will demonstrate how Tolstoj chose characteristic musical and dramatic moments from Robert to create the opera in War and Peace. The resulting picture throws new light the nature of Nataša’s “estranged” experience, and the textual parallels between the plots of Robert and of the Nataša/Anatole episode add a new dimension to the scene and reflect on the overarching themes in War and Peace. Finally, the fact that Tolstoj wrote into his 1811 scene an opera that received its world premiere in Paris in 1831 and arrived in Russia in 1834 reveals more of his complex attitude toward accuracy in historical detail, clearly demonstrating that the grandness of his conception requires real historical time to submit to the world and time of War and Peace.


Федоров, В. В. Репертуар Большого театра СССР 1776-1955. New York:  Norman Ross Publishing, Inc., 2001.

Гозенпуд, А. Избранные статьи. Москва/Ленинград: Советский композитор, 1971.

Lowe, D., “Natasha Rostova Goes to the Opera.” Opera Quarterly 7:3 (1990).

Meyerbeer, G., Robert le Diable. Libretto, with notes by Hugh MacDonald. New York:  Opera Orchestra of New York.

____________, Robert le Diable. Score. Ed. Gossett and Rosen. New York and London:  Garland Publishing, Inc., 1980.

Толстой, Л. Н. Полное собрание сочинений. Москва: Художественная литература, 1928-58.