The Fiery Angel

Sergey Prokofiev
Teatro dell'Opera, Rome
Released

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Goran Juric (Inquisitor) and nuns Credit: Yasuko Kageyama, Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
Alis Bianca (Angel) and Ewa Vesin (Renata) Credit: Yasuko Kageyama, Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
Ewa Vesin (Renata) and Leigh Melrose (Ruprecht) Credit: Yasuko Kageyama, Teatro dell'Opera di Roma

Visceral, thrilling, provocative, phenomenal—Emma Dante’s The Fiery Angel will surely be the definitive production for our times of Prokofiev's greatest opera.

The composer shelved the work, which was never performed in his lifetime. It has been argued that, having turned to Christian Science, he became uneasy about its occultism and equivocation between the forces of good and evil.

If true, there is irony in the fact that these factors make it so compelling today, and open the way for Dante’s intelligent, psychological examination of one woman’s religious hysteria and sexual fantasy.

The story, which has echoes of Lermontov’s The Demon, is based on a rambling novel by the Symbolist poet Valery Bryusov. Renata, a woman with no family, sees visions of a spirit whom she calls Madiel and seeks to be his lover, or that of Count Heinrich, whom she regards as his human incarnation, but by whom she is rejected.

The knight Ruprecht does fall in love with her and is drawn into her practices, but even after being persuaded to fight Heinrich and being badly wounded, he is spurned by Renata. Regretful, she goes off to a monastery, but the other nuns show signs of infernal possession, as a result of which she is condemned to death for carnal intercourse with the Devil.

The opening scene makes clear, however, that we are dealing not with the ambiguous spirits of good and evil but the hallucinations of a distracted woman. It is actually set at an inn where Ruprecht is spending the night, but—unseen by him—corpses writhe in their tombs while Polish soprano Ewa Vesin’s Renata ba-ba-ba-babbles incoherently.

The production has a timeless quality, mediaeval and modern, in which death surrounds the living, and in a neat piece of parallelism, the nuns in the final scene inhabit the same crypt-like confinement as the dead souls in the first.

The piece thus says something also about the subjugation and suffering of women, represented in the cloister also by the disturbing image of a female Christ on the cross, to which, if I not mistaken, Ms Dante has loaned her face as a director’s signature.

The role of Renata is hugely taxing in its length, volume, range and rhythmic complexity, and it was no wonder that Vesin frequently had an eye on the pit. She responded magnificently, chill but not shrill when the occasion demanded, warm-toned while expressing thoughts of her angel.

She is a fine actress to boot, enacting the first mad scene from the get-go, later sensual, fanatical, fearful, regretful, cruel by turns, yet somehow never crushed. Fittingly in his production it is by her own hand that she dies, not at the stake, and in the garb of a black Madonna.

Baritone Leigh Melrose is an excellent Ruprecht, making a good fist of a character who might easily disappear in his own vacillation. Other singers are tip-top too, especially Maxim Paster as a mischief-loving Mephistopheles and a typically Slavic deep bass Goran Juric as the Inquisitor.

The choreography is outstanding, and enlivens every part of the production, with twitchy nuns, a live-wire pot boy, and a lengthy sword-fight by Ruprecht vs. Heinrich plus two spirits. (Only one winner there.)

But the terpsichorean star is the acrobatic breakdancer Alis Bianca—shamefully uncredited in the DVD booklet—as Madiel, whose limbs spin so fast they could bore their way down into Hell.

Prokofiev’s rich, chromatic score is played with remarkable clarity by the Rome Opera Orchestra under Alejo Perez. I loved the hallucinatory sounds that accompanied the first appearance of the angel and the slithery glissandi that indicate the chicanery of charlatans purporting to sell rare manuscripts. (Close-up reveals them to be pages from the actual score.)

The singers may not be quite up to the level of Sergei Leiferkus and Galina Gorchakova in the 1993 Mariinsky version with Valery Gergiev, nor can anything match its orgiastic climax, but the audacious interpretation of this extraordinary production, superbly recorded, just gives it the edge.

Reviewer: Colin Davison