Somehow, "Alexander Nevsky" looked different last night at Wolf Trap, with the National Symphony Orchestra playing Sergey Prokofiev's magnificent soundtrack music while Sergei Eisenstein's great movie played on the large screen -- actually two screens, one for the theater, and one for the lawn.
Not artistically different, but politically. Suddenly, Russian patriotism, even when it seems a bit exaggerated, is something we can accept with more equanimity. Watching the German army breaking through the ice and sinking into Lake Chud, for once I did not think of Stalin, who commissioned this movie for propaganda purposes. Instead, I couldn't help thinking of a hotter climate and the sands of Kuwait.
The visual images were the same as last year, when this strange but harmonious combination old film and live music played Wolf Trap for the first time. Eisenstein's pictures, in a new print made directly from the original master, had a clarity amazing in a film that is more than 50 years old. Details emerged that I had not noticed in a dozen viewings of other, less pristine prints. This visual clarity was well matched by the vivid sounds of a live orchestra, playing in synchronization with the moving images. The combined effect was often, appropriately, larger than life.
But one result of the increased visual clarity is to give more focus to the little stories and vignettes that are woven into the epic tale: the young woman who can't choose between two suitors; the mighty warrior who laughs as he bashes helmets into Teutonic skulls with a long pole, but later quails at his mother's displeasure; the armorer who goes to war and dies criticizing the shortcomings of his own chain mail; the villainy etched into the facial wrinkles of a ancient cardinal who came along to bless the invaders' "crusade."
Under the direction of Michael Lankester, the NSO conveyed all the color and eloquence of Prokofiev's score with particularly powerful work from the brass and percussion sections -- notably in the scene where the ice breaks and an army drowns. The Paul Hill Chorale was clear, strong, tonally rich and well balanced in all its music: sentimental outpourings of love for the Russian land, stirring calls to rise to its defense and dire threats that invaders will die. Mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood sang eloquently for the scene in which a woman wanders over the corpse-strewn battlefield looking for her lover.
In its second year at Wolf Trap, "Alexander Nevsky" has already become a cherished tradition, attracting a capacity audience. A similar treatment of Eisenstein and Prokofiev's "Ivan the Terrible" will have its first American performance at Wolf Trap tonight.