Prokofiev’s “Ivan the Terrible” proves a magnificent discovery in CSO premiere

Fri Feb 24, 2017 at 3:02 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Actor Gerard Depardieu was the title tsar in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's performance of Prokofiev's "Ivan the Terrible" Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Actor Gerard Depardieu portrayed the title tsar in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Prokofiev’s “Ivan the Terrible” Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been engaged in a season-long celebration marking the 125th birthday anniversary of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953).

The blockbuster event of that homage came Thursday night with the performance of Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible, led by Riccardo Muti in its belated CSO premiere. And, as is often the case when the CSO music director feels a work deserves special advocacy, this powerhouse performance delivered a highlight of the current music season.

Prokofiev’s music was written over five years (1941-46) as a film score for famed director Sergei Eisenstein’s planned trilogy of Ivan the Terrible, a follow-up to their successful collaboration on Alexander Nevsky. Part One of Ivan was a success yet Stalin banned Part Two from being shown, likely fearing the story of a murderous, mentally unstable Russian leader struck too close to home. The film wasn’t shown in the Soviet Union until 1958, five years after the composer’s passing. (In one of history’s great ironies, Prokofiev and Stalin died on the same day in 1953.)

There have been several attempts to assemble the best of Prokofiev’s music from the two completed Ivan films. The concert oratorio created in 1962 by Abram Stasevich, conductor of the original film score, has long held sway and it is that version that was performed Thursday night.

Muti has been a dedicated advocate for this neglected score, and recorded the oratorio with the Philharmonia in the 1970s. With soloists, the orchestra and CSO Chorus clicking on all gears under their music director, not only was this first CSO performance of Ivan the Terrible a knockout performance—it was a musical revelation.

Far from being an awkward curio, stitched together of disparate film cues, the Prokofiev/Stasevich Ivan oratorio was shown to be a masterpiece in its own right—grander in scale, more varied, musically richer and more dramatic than the often-heard Alexander Nevsky.

Indeed today Prokofiev’s powerful music for Ivan the Terrible has worn quite well and seems even more extraordinary, while the stylized, silent-film-like acting of the Eisenstein Ivan films seems terribly dated and can often provoke guffaws.

Presented without intermission, the 80-minute oratorio unfolded in a single dramatic arc under Muti’s taut direction, with no longueurs. Highlights abounded: the grandly majestic Overture with chorus and whirling violins; a cheekily ironic “March of Young Ivan”; the battle sections of “The White Swan,” (less comically scored than the “Battle on the Ice” from Nevsky); and the aggressive military swagger of “The Cannoneers.”

“To Kazan!” leads off with a malign, lumbering march for two tubas yet the middle choral section, reflecting the Tartar Plains, offers one of Prokofiev’s most ineffably beautiful melodies, worthy to stand with the finest music in Romeo and Juliet. The wordless choral vocalise for “Ivan at the Coffin of Anastasia” is just as original and affecting.

The partnership of Muti and the CSO musicians was at its most inspirational with playing of seismic force by the entire ensemble— the screaming winds, full-blast brass and seven percussionists working especially hard in this often aggressive score.

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke with Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in "Ivan the Terrible." Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke with Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in “Ivan the Terrible.” Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The lineup of soloists was on the same supreme level.

Gerard Depardieu was simply magnificent as the title 15th-century tsar. Not only did the celebrated French actor’s spoken monologues–in what sounded like idiomatic Russian– convey the essence of Ivan–Depardieu was Ivan. From his first monologue, he commanded the crowded stage with a big, theatrical (necessarily amplified) yet acutely nuanced voice—shouting his denunciations of the boyars, fulminating against the church, or mourning the death of his wife Anastasia. Depardieu fully conveyed the manic ambition, political will, vulnerability, and unhinged psyche in a riveting performance (“I am the Tsar!”).

Musically, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was on the same excellent level. Her dusky contralto-like timbre conveyed the comforting wave-like lines of “Ocean-Sea” and the child’s tale of “Efrosinya’s Lullaby.”

Stationed at the back of the stage, Yasen Peyankov was a wonderfully idiomatic narrator, the Steppenwolf Theatre member’s forceful declamatory style lending a not inapt propagandistic quality to the text. As the Holy Fool, Michael Brown stepped out from the chorus most effectively; his liquid baritone sounded wholly Russian in his warning of Ivan’s attacks on the church. Mikhail Petrenko was the one disappointment, with his bass underprojected in his single scene late in the work.

Scrupulously prepared by Duain Wolfe, the CSO Chorus was glorious. Singing with polish, unanimity and–somehow–a dark, Russian coloring, the chorus was overpowering in their massed ensemble moments. The Chicago Children’s Choir was on the same level as their adult colleagues.

Ivan the Terrible will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Prokofiev’s “Ivan the Terrible” proves a magnificent discovery in CSO premiere”

  1. Posted Feb 25, 2017 at 11:19 am by Anne-Marie

    Thank you for this review which prepared me for last night’s explosive musical experience! From the orchestra to the choruses (adults and children) to the soloists, narrator and the moving Ivan of Gérard Depardieu, this was truly memorable!

  2. Posted Feb 26, 2017 at 10:11 am by CHARLES CROTTEAU

    I attended last evening’s concert and was blown away! This is certainly one of the finest performances I have witnessed at Symphony Center (season ticket holder for ~10 years). The Children’s Choir was exquisite and the percussion section impeccable! Bravo!

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