The garden and mansion at the Rostov estate. The spring of 1809.
Otradnoye, the estate of Count Rostov, the district Marshal of the Nobility. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who has come to Count Rostov in connection with the running of the estate, recalls an old oak tree which he recently saw in the forest. With its dried, broken branches and its scarred bark, the old oak stood out amidst the youthful forest verdure and seemed to be speaking out through its appearance “Spring, love, happiness. Are you not weary of that stupid, meaningless, constantly repeated fraud! There is no spring, no sun, no happiness.” Prince Andrew thinks that the happy days of youth are behind and he has just to “live out his life, content to do no harm, and not disturbing or desiring anything.” Natasha Rostova, thrilled by the beauty of the spring night, is unable to sleep. Prince Andrei recognises the voice of the young girl who attracted his attention in the course of the day. “There is something very, very special in this young girl who wants to fly away,” he says, seized by an “unreasoning springtime feeling of joy and renewal.”
Moscow. The ball at an old grandee of Catherine’s the Great's time
On New Year’s Eve, Count Rostov brings Natasha and his daughter-in-law Sonya to the ball. Guests are arriving. Among them are Count Pierre Bezukhov and his wife, the lovely Countess Hélène and her brother, Anatole Kuragin.
The polonaise is followed by a mazurka, then a waltz. Terribly anxious, Natasha, who has never before been to a grand ball, thinks that nobody notices her and that she will not dance at all. Count Pierre Bezukhov, guessing at the young girl’s feelings, approaches Prince Andrei and suggests that he invite Natasha for a waltz. Andrei admires the shy grace of this “very special” girl; he is increasingly enchanted by Natasha’s youthful enthusiasm. “He asked her to waltz… ‘I have long been waiting for you,’ the frightened but happy girl seems to say by the smile that has conquered the threat of tears, as she raises her hand to Prince Andrei’s shoulder.” After the dance with Natasha, Prince Andrei, quite to his own surprise, tries to guess his fortune “If she goes to her cousin first and then to another lady, she will be my wife.” Natasha goes first to her cousin.
The drawing room in the mansion of old Prince Bolkonsky
Count Rostov and Natasha, now already engaged to Prince Andrei, have come for their first visit to old Prince Bolkonsky. Natasha believes that the prince, on knowing her closer, will no longer disapprove of his son’s intention to marry and will love her. But Prince Bolkonsky refuses to receive the Rostovs. They are received by his daughter Princess Marya. Natasha is indignant to the point of tears by the princess’s coldness and by the insulting behaviour of the old prince who suddenly appears. She does not wish to stay any longer in this inhospitable house. Natasha feels the pangs of love, stronger than ever before, for Prince Andrei who has been obliged by his father to spend a year abroad.
The divan-room of Hélène Bezukhova
A ball in the house of Hélène Bezukhova. Count Rostov, invited to this soirée with Na¬tasha and Sonya, is “displeased to see that the company consists almost entirely of men and women known for their loose conduct.” Hélène knows that Natasha is betrothed to Prince Andrei, ”one of the most energetic, well-educated and clever young men”, yet she readily helps her dissolute brother Anatole Kuragin to make advances on the pretty young girl, whom he noticed before at the New Year ball. The idea to bring together her brother and Natasha amuses the countess. When Anatole and Natasha are left alone, Anatole expresses his love to her and passes her a letter in which he suggests that they elope. Natasha is in disarray. She cannot resist the flood of emotions that is overpowering her. “How dear, how terribly dear this man suddenly became to me.” Sonya tries to bring her back to reason and to warn her.
Anatole Kuragin has instigated Dolokhov to arrange a secret wedding of him and Natasha Rostova. However, having made all the preparations and having also found money and a coachman, Dolokhov attempts to dissuade Kuragin from his wild plan, but the latter is unbending and readies himself to set out for Natasha.
The mansion of Marya Dmitriyevna Akhrosimova
In the ante-chamber of Marya Akhrosimova’s mansion, where the Rostov family is staying, the distracted Natasha is impatiently waiting for Anatole. She has made up her mind to flee with him, breaking off her engagement with Prince Andrei without informing her par¬ents. But Akhrosimova learns about the intended elopement from Sonya and when Anatole calls for Natasha, he finds his way barred by the butler. Kuragin makes his escape. Marya Dmitriyevna is indignant at Natasha’s conduct and rebukes the girl but, afraid of publicity, she begs Pierre Bezukhov, who has come for a visit, to take measures “as otherwise there will be a scandal and a duel.” Pierre, who has recently begun to think about the girl who is engaged to his friend with an excitement that terrifies him, fails to understand how Natasha could make such a decision. On seeing her suffering, however, at the news that Anatole is married and at her sense of guilt committed in respect of Prince Andrei, Pierre, in a gush of compassion, tenderness and love, suddenly confesses that he loves Natasha himself.
Pierre Bezukhov’s room
Hélène is receiving guests in her husband’s room. Pierre comes in and demands that Anatole Kuragin leave Moscow immediately. The frightened Anatole agrees to this demand. Pierre finds his home despicable, his riches useless and the people around him worthless. Pierre’s friend, Vasily Denisov, brings news that Napoleon has advanced his troops to the Russian frontier.