"Ivan the Terrible," the classic film that had its American premiere in a new edition Saturday night at Wolf Trap, comes from the same source as "Alexander Nevsky," which played the night before, and offers many of the same satisfactions. The combination of director Sergei Eisenstein's visual imagination and Sergei Prokofiev's music made it a show well worth seeing and hearing, and I hope it will be brought back in future seasons. But when they are seen in close succession, it quickly becomes clear that "Ivan," at least in the excerpted form shown Saturday night, is not as powerful a work of art as "Nevsky."
Prokofiev's music for the soundtrack was well performed by the National Symphony Orchestra, the Paul Hill Chorale, mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood and bass Jonathan Deutsch, with Michael Lankester conducting. It is vividly expressive music, wonderfully varied in style and emotional impact and precisely tailored to its functions in the film -- heightening tensions; reinforcing emotional messages; commenting, in its own language, sometimes quite ironically or obliquely, on the plot and characters. It works so beautifully with the pictures that it makes the Bolshoi Ballet's "Ivan the Terrible," performed at Wolf Trap a week earlier with much of the same music, seem rather contrived and routine in comparison.
Eisenstein's film richly deserves such strong musical support. Even if it had no plot and themes to hold it together, "Ivan's" sequence of images has an expressive power reminiscent of silent films, the form in which Eisenstein got his start. There are scenes of epic scope -- armies going into battle, the grandeur of royal ceremonies, the great city of Kazan being blown up -- but the deepest interest is on a more intimate level: the faces of the actors, their costumes and body language; the close-up shots of facial expressions that communicate, at a glance, whole books full of character, attitudes and life experience. At his best, Eisenstein produces a sort of visual music that counterpoints brilliantly with Prokofiev's vocal and orchestral music.
This felicity in small details was fortunate, because the larger structures of plot and theme were often problematic Saturday night. These elements were weakened to begin with, when the movie was being made during World War II, by the fact that Eisenstein was working under Stalin's heavy-handed supervision. The film had a propaganda function, and the director was not free to explore the complexities of Ivan's character, particularly its pervasive dark side, as thoroughly and realistically as the material deserved. Even the simplified and adulatory treatment Ivan got was not good enough for Stalin, who identified with Ivan and suppressed Part 2 of the film.
In Saturday night's presentation, Part 1 came across better than Part 2, which seemed relatively lacking in focus and coherence. The subtitles were not as satisfactory as they had been for "Nevsky" the night before; words for the choral and solo vocal music were ignored in the subtitles, and quite a bit of dialogue, particularly in Part 2, went untranslated.