Nekrasov can be insightful nevertheless, and by staging a prologue wherein bare nymphs dance orgiastically alongside a spirit lake as the Scythian Suite blares on the soundtrack, he crucially foregrounds the demonic aspect essential to an understanding of Prokofiev. Indeed, this orgiastic-pantheistic imagery – indebted to Ken Russell, no doubt – will recur and develop throughout the film, particularly when Nekrasov envisions The Fiery Angel and the young Prokofiev’s passions for future wife Lina. The narrative proper begins where Prokofiev’s autobiography begins, with Sergei recalling his mother’s tutelage at the piano: “I used to listen with keen and even critical interest in my mother’s playing; she played quite well, chiefly Chopin and Beethoven, which gave me a taste for serious music from early childhood”. The scene segues into an historically invaluable presentation of what little remains of Prokofiev’s first juvenile opera, The Giant (1900), staged exactly as one would imagine from the autobiography, with privileged, dreadfully precocious children shrilly declaiming their medieval fairy-tale in homemade costume, while young Sergei pounds at the keyboard in a manner surely intended to make his mother’s precious Chopin spin in his grave.
In a film where the Great Terror will eventually rear its head, it is tempting – if somewhat jejune – to perceive the image of this raving Giant-child, terrific in stiff black vestments and wreaking havoc in a pre-Revolutionary manor house, as a premonition of the childish, yet hardly childlike, horrors to come. In the following sequence the allegorical foreshadowing is undeniable, however. As young Sergei witnesses Gounod’s Faust through red-tinted opera glasses, we hear the voiceover of an older Prokofiev recount his experience of the opera in portentous words borrowed from the autobiography: “But then there was Marguerite, who ended up rather badly. Why was it she who got into trouble because of Faust’s pact with the devil? – that remained a puzzle for me.” Of course, it was Lina, eventually kidnapped by the secret police, who would be outcast and martyred like Marguerite for the Faustian bargain the “unwitting” Prokofiev later struck with the Stalinist machine.
Nekrasov’s stylistic instincts during the dramatised sequences are uneven, alternately whimsical and heavy-handed. When an arrogant Prokofiev shocks bourgeois attendees at an Evening of Contemporary Music by punching out the Suggestion diabolique, we hear his voiceover claim, “The chief aim of my life is to search for originality in my own musical language. [...] I abhor imitation, complacency, the familiar”. At this point, Nekrasov cuts away to stock footage of antediluvian motorcars and aircraft chugging along far less efficiently than Prokofiev’s pianistic motor rhythms. We’ve seen similarly absurd footage in, say, documentaries about the early history of flight, but in this context the discordant visual association amuses. But occasionally Nekrasov’s repertoire of impressionist imagery skirts cliché: ghostly women in gauzy chiffon glide in slow motion through mansions when Prokofiev’s more mystical works grace the soundtrack, and the film unsubtly cuts to virile horses pounding through snow – again in slow motion – when we hear the First Piano Concerto’s third movement achieve its rapturous climax. Nekrasov’s treatment of the famously belligerent “The Evil God and the Dance of the Pagan Monsters” from the WWI-era Scythian Suite is conventional, too, intercutting close-ups of Gergiev’s performance (strikingly filmed, admittedly) with stock footage of trench warfare, ancient tanks, and corpses muddied and aflame. Yet his visualisation of “The Adoration of Veles and Ala” is wholly convincing: as a more sexually-charged incarnation of the pagan ritual seen in the film’s prologue ensues – now emboldened with fiery special effects and contorted, eroticised bodies – we become convinced that Ala and Lolli was, and could still be, something more vital than an aborted, ersatz Rite of Spring.
The director’s grasp of Prokofiev’s output is thoroughgoing: in charting a direct chronological march across his musical career, Nekrasov doesn’t neglect to illustrate the public disaster that befell the Second Symphony (we see Gergiev performing its second movement, all-too-briefly), and jokes about the fashionable French cosmopolitanism that birthed the Fifth Piano Concerto. The film also documents the Parisian reaction to the oft-neglected Le Pas d’acier, though I’d have preferred simply to see Gergiev’s performance of its climax rather than have the excerpt relegated to the soundtrack while we observe stock footage of sweaty foundry workers and American roller-coasters – images that alternately posit the ballet as Bolshevist propaganda or decadently Western adventure, as polarised (and bewildered) critics suggested at the time. More compelling is the director’s handling – and centring – of The Fiery Angel. After dramatised scenes depict Prokofiev composing Angel at the piano as Lina sings Renata’s role by his side, we delve into a meta-dramatisation of Prokofiev envisioning the action, where the camera cautiously approaches Renata writhing hysterically in bed (we hear her aria from Act 1), and follows her fleeing from a secluded, snowy convent (to the hellish thundering of Third Symphony’s finale). Notwithstanding the Kirov-Mariinsky’s sensational, gymnastically erotic co-production with the Royal Opera House (London) of 1991-92, these dramatisations, modest as they are, suggest that Angel’s full power could be best actualised through the delimited mise en scène of a cinematised production, not the cardboard props and wobbly backdrops endemic to the stage. (2)
For the central and climactic roles The Fiery Angel plays in Nekrasov’s narrative, and because Lina Prokofiev is likened to a tormented Renata figure (just as she is, simultaneously, a victimised Marguerite figure), one comes away from The Prodigal Son believing that an understanding of The Fiery Angel’s tormented dissonance will unlock Prokofiev’s enigmatic musical personality. The film’s impressionist leanings, however, really enable rather than deconstruct Prokofiev’s enigmas. While the narrator insists that the Fiery Angel “remained the composer’s greatest obsession”, we are never told exactly why (he laboured an equally long time on The Gambler and War and Peace); and while the voiceover stresses that, “the finale of the opera remains strangely ambiguous [...] Prokofiev leaves the audience uncertain as to whether to believe in Renata’s angelic purity, or to accept the inquisitor’s lurid portrayal of her as the ultimate whore revelling in her carnal submission to the devil!”, it is unclear how subsequent images of Renata fleeing on a white steed symbolic (paradoxically) of both purity and boundless sexuality will open windows into Prokofiev’s creative process. Overanalysing such opaque symbolisations will inevitably lead to allegorical cul-de-sacs (can Renata’s angel/whore dichotomy be analogous to Prokofiev’s personal conflict over remaining true to his art or conceding to Soviet politics?), and Nekrasov’s imagery ultimately will be accepted or rejected on the grounds of impressionist beauty, of which Prokofiev himself was so often sceptical.
BACK TO SUMMARY
(2) In a highly indirect sense, Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) may already represent a cinematisation of The Fiery Angel’s more sensational traits; according to his autobiography The Lion Roars, Russell would wheel great speakers onto the film set and play Prokofiev’s Third Symphony to get actors in the proper mood during scenes of hysterical nun possession.