If you are to fully capture the gargantuan power, cruelty and monomania required to establish an empire in musical terms alone, you had better amass a full orchestra, an enormous chorus and a children’s choir. And that is precisely what the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev did when devising the soundtrack for “Ivan the Terrible,” Sergei Eisenstein’s altogether astonishing epic film from the 1940s that was initially commissioned, and subsequently censored, by Joseph Stalin.
Now, just such a monumental army of musical masters has been summoned together as maestro Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have joined forces with the Chicago Symphony Chorus and the Chicago Children’s Choir to perform the oratorio version of the score devised by Abram Stasevich, who had conducted the film’s soundtrack.
CSO IN PROKOFIEV’S ‘IVAN THE TERRIBLE’
Rating: Highly recommended
When: Feb. 24 and 25 at 8 p.m.
Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan
Info: (312) 294-3000; www.cso.org
Run time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Stasevich condensed the music from three-hours of film into a rip-roaring 90 minutes interspersed with brief bits of narration performed here by the French actor Gerard Depardieu (speaking in Russian) – a tank of a man who evokes Tsar Ivan the Terrible, the 16th century Prince of Muscovy who would stop at nothing to expand the boundaries of his country and establish routes to the sea. In the process, Ivan crushed his enemies with great savagery, demanded military service and unwavering loyalty from all, commanded the established church to turn over vast sums of money, and ultimately established unchallenged power over “a united kingdom that has power over its neighbors.”
As Ivan proclaims, “There were two Romes, Moscow is the third, and there will be no fourth.” Not surprisingly he ends up paranoid and alone, but with the borders of his empire indelibly drawn. And if Ivan’s mission sounds all too familiar five centuries later, so much the better to add heat and horror to Prokofiev’s gorgeously evocative work, which is receiving a spectacular performance at Symphony Hall. A tyrant is a tyrant is a tyrant. But out of calamity there often comes great works of art.
Comprised of 20 brief sequences, “Ivan” (even more thrilling for those who caught the free screening of the hypnotic Eisenstein film two days prior to the concert), begins with an overture that suggests trouble is brewing, but then immediately shifts to an almost playful suggestion of the young Ivan, and a beautiful evocation of the sea (sung by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke) that he will eventually seek to control.
Before long, Ivan proclaims, “I will be Tsar,” and chimes ring out as the chorus and orchestra join to announce his ascendance under the gaze of God, and wish for his long life. The Holy Fool briefly begs to differ; he senses the horrors to come.
The Tsar’s search for a wife is captured in the lushly lyrical and poetic “White Swan” section. But the humanity of that interlude quickly turns to war as wine cups are hurled (the narration and supertitles fill in the essential action), stones are hurled through windows and fires erupt in “On the Bones of the Enemy.”
The music here, as it is throughout, is a vivid reminder that while Prokofiev was a master of suggesting the mood and energy of a scene he was never literal or programmatic. And his instrumentation (percussion ranging from wood clappers to hauntingly muted cymbals, timpani and military-style drums, two harps and piano, as well as the marvelous use of the low strings, and the horns and woodwinds) is a marvel. So is the CSO, as Muti drives them through the scenes in which Ivan ‘s army pursues the Tartars of Kazan, obliterates the aristocratic Boyars, begins to fear his own death and mourns the death of his wife, Anastasia.
Cooke does a fine job of singing the darkly strange lullaby about a beaver hellbent on survival. And in something of a Brechtian twist, Prokofiev uses the angelic voices of children to sing about how “now we have fallen into the hands of lawless rulers.” The Chicago Children’s Choir (applause for its artistic director, Josephine Lee), is superb.
As for the Symphony’s Chorus (led by director Duain Wolfe), they make a mighty sound throughout, and are never more thrilling than when they sing the fierce Oath of the Oprichniki (the governing enforcers assembled by Ivan), and accompany bass Mikhail Petrenko as he sings the wild “Song of Fyodor Basmanov.”
In one of the great ironies, Prokofiev died on the very same day as Stalin in March, 1953. And Muti enjoys telling the story of how Sviatoslav Richter, the great Soviet pianist, tried in vain to buy a single flower to put on his coffin, but with every bloom taken for Stalin ended up simply clipping the branch from a pine tree.
One final note: Though it is entirely by chance, Chicago is now the scene of a mini Russian festival, with this powerhouse version of “Ivan the Terrible” being performed at the same time that Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” opens at Lyric Opera and Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” is at the Goodman Theatre.