Back on the podium at Symphony Center after leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a grand tour of Europe in January, maestro Riccardo Muti is not resting on his laurels.

CSO IN PROKOFIEV’S ‘IVAN THE TERRIBLE’
When: Feb. 23, 24 and 25 at 8 p.m.
Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan
Tickets: $34-$222
Info: (312) 294-3000; www.cso.org
Run time: 90 minutes, no intermission

He has plunged into an intense series of concerts featuring the work of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann, along with three rare performances of the oratorio drawn from Sergei Prokofiev’s grand score for “Ivan the Terrible,” the epic historical film about Tsar Ivan IV of Russia that was commissioned by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during World War II and was subsequently banned by him.

Joining Muti and the CSO for these performances on Feb. 23, 24 and 25 will be the French film actor Gerard Depardieu, who speaks the role of Ivan in Russian (which he learned phonetically), along with Steppenwolf actor-director Yasen Peyankov (who grew up in Bulgaria and is fluent in Russian) as the narrator, Michael Brown as The Holy Fool, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as the czarina and bass Mikhail Perenko. Backing them will be both the Chicago Symphony Chorus and the Chicago Children’s Choir.

Maestro Riccardo Muti will lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Prokofiev's "Ivan the Terrible," Feb. 23-25. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

Riccardo Muti will lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Prokofiev’s “Ivan the Terrible” Feb. 23-25. | Todd Rosenberg Photography

Planning of the CSO programs is done long in advance of the season, so current events swirling around a certain U.S. president and a certain Russian president had nothing to do with the choice of this piece. In fact, it was programmed as part of the orchestra’s ongoing celebration of the 125th anniversary of the birth of Prokofiev, regarded as one of the great Russian modernist composers of the 20th century, along with Igor Stravinsky and Dmitri Shostakovich.

“I never think about such things,” said Muti, sipping San Pellegrino Chinotto, a bittersweet, non-alcoholic beverage made from Sicilian oranges.

“Music is far above ordinary politics, even if it deals with historical subjects,” Muti said. “But I will tell you that many years ago, when I conducted another Prokofiev film score, ‘Alexander Nevsky,’ in London, the great Russian mezzo soprano Irina Arkhipova was interrupted three times as protestors jumped on the stage and cried, ‘Free Natan Sharansky’ ” — the human rights activist and refusenik who spent nine years in Soviet prisons. “We continued, but I would have stopped had there been a fourth time.”

Gerard Depardieu |Getty Images

Gerard Depardieu |Getty Images

As it happened, Stalin admired and identified with Ivan the Terrible, a fearsome tyrant who ruled Russia for much of the 16th century, and transformed the country from a medieval state into a vast, multi-ethnic, multi-continental empire at great human cost. But Stalin also put a stop to the making of the final (third) part of the Eisenstein film when the depiction of the tsar did not meet his approval.

Muti already was familiar with the film and score for “Alexander Nevsky” when, in the 1970s, he was strolling around Vienna and happened upon an old music library.

As he recalled: “I’m always trying to find old scores, and I found the one for ‘Ivan Grozniy’ [the Russian title] there and bought it. Only later did I learn the film existed in some form.

“I saw parts of it — only now can you find the entire thing — and heard the music — which incorporates everything from elements of Russian Orthodox church music to folk tunes, all with Prokofiev’s distinctive spin. And I immediately wanted to do it. The first time I conducted the work was at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, with Russian singers and actors. When I entered the hall for the initial rehearsal, I saw a huge throne placed near the podium and was told the actor playing Ivan had asked for it. I told them I was the conductor and had the throne removed from the stage and a toilet brought in instead.

“Later, we did the piece with the same singers in London and other cities and also recorded it. Then, in 2010, when I wanted to do it at the Salzburg Festival, I thought my good friend Depardieu, who I’d known for years, would be the ideal person to play Ivan.”

The actor also collaborated with Muti on performances and a recording of Berlioz’s “Lelio” several years ago. As Muti noted, while Depardieu is a French citizen, Putin granted him honorary Russian citizenship in 2013.

The oratorio version of “Ivan,” which unfolds in 20 brief movements, is the work of Abram Stasevich, the director of the studio orchestra for the “Ivan” soundtrack recording. But he devised it only in 1961, a few years after the Soviet prohibition on the film’s second part had been lifted, “rearranging” parts of the original and adding a narrator to convey crucial moments in the plot.

Asked about the overall response to the CSO during its European tour Muti, ever the proud Italian, said: “Many who heard us noted that, while the orchestra has always been great, it now seems to be even more flexible and homogeneous, with a new lightness, especially in the strings and woodwinds, and a lusher, more singing sound. This might be the result of our playing quite a bit of the Italian repertoire and opera, which has given a more Mediterranean flavor to its sound.”

NOTE: A free screening of Parts I and II of “Ivan the Terrible” (3 hours and 30 minutes) will be presented at Symphony Center  at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19, with CSO program annotator Phillip Huscher joined by Muti for remarks beforehand. Reservations are required by phone or online, and seating is general admission. There also will be 30-minute pre-concert lectures with Stephen Yaness  at 7 p.m. in the Grainger Ballroom before each concert.