If the test of any uniting of art forms - music and lyrics, for example - is that it becomes impossible to think of one without the other, then "Alexander Nevsky" passes with flying colors.
It's certainly a great film, perhaps the sound masterpiece of the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein - and it was, in 1938, his first sound film. Nor is it accidental that the music Sergei Prokofiev composed for it has subsequently acquired an independent status in the concert hall.Well, this weekend Utah Symphony patrons can experience the two of them together, as it were, as the orchestra under Joseph Silverstein presents a full screening of the original film (in pretty much a pristine print), together with a full-scale performance of the original score.
Friday, I must admit, I went in a skeptic. How in the world could they, under live performing conditions, ever bring it all together?
Well, at times they didn't. Not only did the orchestra and chorus frequently obscure the dialogue - something the subtitles admittedly did a lot to correct - but what had earlier been only an occasional falling short of the split-second timing Eisenstein and Prokofiev achieved in the editing room grew progressively out of sync in the climactic pages of "The Battle on Ice." Thus horns sounded in the orchestra a short time after they had been blown onscreen, and for some reason were robbed of the delicious instrumental squiggle Prokofiev inserts as the last of the Teutonic Knights slips beneath the surface to his death.
At the same time enough went right to make me at least a partial believer.
For one thing the film itself has lost none of its power, from the epic depiction of the battle, in which the 13th-century German invaders were defeated by the Russian people under Grand Duke Alexander, to the human drama, and occasional comedy, with which Eisenstein laces the broth. Like Shakespeare, he makes us care about the characters he wishes us to sympathize with, chief among them the Alexander of Nikolai Cherkasov, magnificent in his strength and compassion, but no less the bluff and hearty Buslai of N.P. Okhlopov, who, whether preening his mustache with an ax or laying about him with a broadsword, helps win both the battle and, for his friend, the heart of the maiden they both hold dear.
On the other side stand the Germans, extraordinary even among Eisenstein's gallery of grotesques. Amid the smoking ruin of Pskov, we see them toss babies into the fire. And they are no less terrifying as, in heavy armor, they spur their steeds across the ice toward the waiting Russians, whose anxiety we share.
More than ever, in fact, given the added power of those prolonged hoofbeats in the orchestra. That we have known from the cantata. But when before have we heard the barrage of arrows loosed with such force, or Alexander's single combat with the Grand Master? Under Silverstein's broadly committed direction, these had a depth and presence only hinted at on the soundtrack.
Likewise the choruses, via a well-prepared Utah Symphony Chorus, the clarity of whose singing was for the most part admirable - especially in the Russian-language sections. Similarly, mezzo Laura Garff's intoning of "The Field of the Dead" added immensely to the poignancy of that scene, as Olga searches for her lover after the battle.
In short, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and one you don't have to be Russian to enjoy. Indeed at the end even a German might feel a lump in his throat, and not from the warning Eisenstein inserts as to what will happen should they ever try it again - prophetically, as it turned out.
* REPEAT PERFORMANCE: The finest home-video issue of "Alexander Nevsky" I know is far and away the Image laser disc, followed by the new White Star tape; both include the original soundtrack. In the meantime those who want the cantata Prokofiev assembled from his score are directed to either the Reiner (RCA) or Schippers (Odyssey) recordings, with Slatkin (Vox) and Abbado (DG) reasonalbe alternatives.