Revisiting Prokofiev’s “Fiery Angel”

Fiery Angel

PROKOFIEV: The Fiery Angel / Leigh Melrose, bar (Ruprecht); Ewa Vesin, sop (Renata); Anna Victorova, mezzo (Landlady); Mairam Sokolova, mezzo (Fortune Teller/Mother Superior); Sergey Radchenko, ten (Agrippa of Nettesheim); Andrii Ganchuk, bar (Johann Faust/Servant(; Maxim Paster (Mephistopheles); Goran Jurić, bs (Inquisitor); Domingo Pellicola, ten (Jacob Glock); Petr Sokolov, bar (Mathias Wiessman); Murat Can Güvem, ten (Doctor); Rome Opera Chorus & Orch.; Roberto Gabbiani, choral dir; Alejo Pérez, cond; Emma Dante, dir / Naxos DVD 2.110663 (live: Rome, May 23, 2019)

Leave it to a Russian to write an opera so weird that even other Russians didn’t want to hear it.

The Fiery Angel, completed in 1927, was Prokofiev’s follow-up to the surreal but very funny Love for Three Oranges, but no one wanted to produce it. As noted on Wikipedia, even before it was finished, “In 1926, Bruno Walter made Prokofiev an offer to have The Fiery Angel produced at a Berlin theater, which prompted Prokofiev to work on the orchestration. The orchestration was finished in 1927,” but the production never came about. In 1928, not wanting to give up on it, Prokofiev allowed conductor Serge Koussevitzky to give a concert version of the second act in 1928, after which he made revisions. Eventually, realizing that no one wanted to mount a production of it, he recycled parts of the opera in his Symphony No. 3 later that year.

And why all this flak? Partly due to the music, which is considered to be some of the most advanced that Prokofiev ever wrote, and partly due to the plot, which some considered to be profane and scandalous at best and heretical at worst.

Based on a novel of the same title by Russian symbolist writer Valery Bryusov, the story concerns a 16th-century knight named Ruprecht who, upon taking a small room at an inn, hears a woman weeping in the room adjacent to his and breaks down the door. He then sees a half-clad young woman named Renata who tells him a fantastic story. At age eight, she was visited by a fiery angel named Madiel who led her to magical faraway places and pleaded with her to lead an ascetic life destined for sainthood, but at age 16 she got the hots for Madiel and put the make on him. Disgusted, Madiel disappeared, but she then latched onto a guy named Heinrich who she believed to be the mortal incarnation of Madiel on earth. They had a torrid love affair for about a year until Heinrich suddenly got up, left, and disappeared, never to return. Renata too eventually left Heinrich’s castle, wandering aimlessly tormented at night by frightening visions until she met Ruprecht. The knight wants to make her his lover but she refuses, though she does let him take her with him. She studies books on magic, digs up a magician and alchemist named Agrippa, eventually sees Heinrich again who spurns her. She then asks Ruprecht to kill Heinrich for her, which he does, but Heinrich then appears in the form of Madiel the fiery angel. The rest of the story covers further adventures, including a meeting with Mephistopheles and Faust at an inn and her eventually entering a convent where the Mother Superior, alarmed by mysterious voices and alarming visions, eventually has her exorcised.

The production presented here is interesting, and contains some stunning visuals—particularly the mad-looking man in a woman’s tutu who dances a sort of crazy kazatsky as one of Renata’s “visions”—but also some unnecessary distractions, such as the insane inn guests who writhe in their beds and make insane faces while Ruprecht and Renata interact. Apparently, this is Emma Dante’s directing style, to cram the stage with mute bodies that look like stupid people twitching and rolling around, and hope they have some remote symbolism to connect them to the plot of whatever opera she is staging. This I could have lived without, and I particularly wish that the cameraman (or woman) would not have continually done close-ups of them when they were clearly meant to be backdrops to the action. Well, you know the drill: a modern opera production isn’t considered to be interesting unless you have continual distracting visuals going on to take attention away from what the actual plot is. (At the beginning of the fourth act, for absolutely no reason, Dante has two crippled men leaning on crutches carry on a ridiculous and pointless battle onstage before the music begins.)

Honestly, I was much more interested in trying to figure out what the point was of Bryusov’s symbolist story. The best I can make of it is that he felt, as many intelligent people today do, that organized religion is based on as much mythology and folk tales as the “pagan” religions they supposedly evolved from (which is absolutely factual, whether you’re a religious person or not), and thus that such visions are as much the product of hyperactive imaginations as those of magicians and necromancers. In this context, then, Ruprecht seems to represent an outsider looking in, trying to make sense of it all but having some trouble doing so, partly because he is not a believer and partly because he is trying to believe in order to seduce Renata, who he apparently fell in love with at first sight. For a woman who supposedly doesn’t want Ruprecht to love her, Renata exhibits some very strange behavior in this production, like leaping into his arms while continuing to tell her tale. On the other hand, dressed as she is like a scullery maid and wearing almost no makeup, she’s clearly not attractive enough to seduce any man.

By and large, however, this is a surprisingly good production with good costuming and excellent direction. Our Ruprecht, British baritone Leigh Melrose, has an appropriately dark voice with, alas, some slight infirmity in sustained tones, but he creates a vivid and believable character as the soldier/knight. Polish soprano Ewa Vesin as Renata is simply phenomenal, singing with a firm, dark tone, impeccable diction and musicianship, and first-rate interpretive skills. As long as she is on the stage, you cannot take your attention away from her, and this in itself is a major plus. There’s also a “dancing demon” or apparition, unidentified on the DVD box or booklet, who is a terrific male dancer, bouncing around like a kazatsky performer on acid. (In the third act, he is joined by another of the same as Ruprecht duels Heinrich.)

Vesin and Melrose

Vesin and Melrose in the first act

As the opera progressed, I was able to mentally shut out the annoying, writhing, silent extras on the stage (most of the time, anyway…when they crowd around the principals it’s hard to ignore them) and focus on the principal performers and the story, which helped. And I think my initial hunch was correct, that Bryusov purposely conflated religion with witchcraft and superstition as forms of mental and emotional aberrations in people. I just wish that Emma Dante wasn’t so confoundedly obsessed with filling the stage with superfluous humans who have no identities and in fact no connection whatever to the story of the opera she is staging. Fortunately, our two principals, who dominate the proceedings, were just so good both as singers and as actors that you just stay riveted to the screen despite the stupid and mostly superfluous distractions.  I particularly liked the little scene where Renata asks a mysterious visitor to “knock three times” if she will again see her beloved Heinrich…and of course he knocks three times, probably not even having heard what she said, but she believes that it is an omen. And of course she “sees” Heinrich, who embraces her, as well as her weird acrobatic little gnome in the tutu, while Ruprecht does not.

It also helps that most of the supporting cast also had excellent voices: Mairam Sokolova as the Fortune Teller (later as the Mother Superior of the convent), tenor Domingo Pellicola as Jacob Glock, and Sergey Radchenko as Agrippa of Nettesheim. The latter possesses an unusually dark, powerful Russian tenor voice of the sort you’d like to hear doing Hermann in Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame.

The Fiery Angel is clearly an interesting work, with largely bitonal and occasionally atonal passages woven deftly into the overall fabric of the score. Small wonder that little of this worked when Prokofiev rewrote parts of it for his third symphony—not to mention the fact that the music is theatrically developed, not symphonically, which makes a huge difference in its impact on the listener. More often than not, the vocal lines are written as other instrument in the orchestra insofar as their function as music is concerned, but of course they are NOT orchestral instruments but vivid stage characters who bring out emotions and attitudes that no instrument can really express. As an example of what I mean, try to imagine Berg’s Wozzeck as a purely instrumental piece. It would be interesting, certainly, but how could the instruments of the orchestra convey the human attitudes and accents of Wozzeck, Marie, Herr Hauptmann or the Drum Major? They couldn’t, and such was the case when Prokofiev converted parts of The Fiery Angel into his Third Symphony.

I would be remiss if I didn’t laud choral director Roberto Gabbiani and Spanish conductor Alejo Pérez for their superb direction of the Rome Opera forces. Both are quite evidently experienced as well as adept in modern music, and without their contributions this would clearly not have been a competitive version of the opera. Pérez is clearly a spiritual descendant of Rodziński and even of Toscanini; he brings out inner details without exaggerating them, keeps the music moving forward and infuses it all with an almost manic energy.

The Fiery Angel is clearly not an opera for everyone; its very modernistic, almost abrasive harmonic language will surely turn more traditional listeners off, as will its complete lack of arias in the conventional sense; but it is a superb musical and theatrical creation, and it makes you think (the extra bodies onstage aside). This performance is clearly first-rate in every respect, a strong competitor to the audio-only recordings conducted by Valery Gergiev (Decca) and Neeme Järvi (Deutsche Grammophon).

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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