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DVD Review

Serge Prokofieff

The Fiery Angel

  • Renata - Galina Gorchakova
  • Ruprecht - Sergei Leiferkus
  • Fortune-Teller- Larissa Dyadkova
  • Jakob Glock - Evgeni Boitsov
  • Agrippa - Vladimir Galuzin
  • Mephistopheles - Konstantin Pluzhnikov
  • Faust - Sergei Alexashkin
  • Inquisitor - Vladimir Ognovenko
  • Hostess - Evgenia Perlasova-Verkovich
  • Porter - Mikhail Kit
  • Matthias - Yuri Laptev
  • Doctor - Valery Lebed
  • Host - Evgeni Fedotov
St Petersburg Maryinsky Acrobatic Troup
Chorus & Orchestra of the Maryinsky Theater/Valery Gergiev
Stage Director - David Freeman
Stage Designer - David Roger
Lighting Designers - Vladimir Lukasevitch & Steve Whitson
Video Director - Brian Large
Recorded Live at the Maryinsky Theater, St. Petersburg - September, 1993
Arthaus Musik DVD 100391 124m LPCM Stereo Fullscreen
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon JapanOrder Now from ArkivMusic.comFind it at CD Universe

The Fiery Angel (1919-1927) has had a most unusual history: Prokofiev would spend more time and effort on it than any other of his works, without ever seeing a staging of it in his lifetime. He would only hear a partial concert performance from Koussevitzky in 1927, after which he recycled some of the music from the opera for use in his Third Symphony. The work's concert premiere took place a year after Prokofiev's death, in 1954 in Paris, under the baton of Charles Bruck. The stage premiere took place in Venice in 1955 in a performance led by Nino Sanzogno, with Dorothy Dow as Renata. Bruck made the opera's first recording in 1956, with Jane Rhodes as Renata and Xavier Depraz as Ruprecht. The language in that pioneering effort was French. Two Russian language versions were finally recorded in the 1990s: Järvi (DG) in 1991 and Gergiev (Philips) in 1993. Gergiev's effort was also made available on DVD later on, and it is this recording, in its 2014 reissue, that is under review here.

Prokofiev himself may be partly to blame for the work's neglect: as I explained in my 2012 review of the documentary, Prokofiev – The Unfinished Diary (Kultur DVD D4802), the composer had developed an interest in the Christian Science religion around the time he finished the opera and, because of the work's subject matter involving evil spirits, exorcism, and other religious excesses, he seems to have suddenly developed second thoughts about the opera and actually considered destroying the score. Certainly, it has appeared in retrospect that Prokofiev was at least not anxious to get the work to the stage: he even left the score behind in France when he later returned to Russia.

With total neglect at the outset and relatively few performances and recordings after its belated premiere, The Fiery Angel remained for years a work supported by only a small but dedicated cult following. In the past couple of decades, however, the opera has made strides and stands a chance at gaining wider currency. This reissue and other recent live performances may help its cause – a cause I strongly support because I consider this work among the greatest operas of the 20th century.

The Fiery Angel is based on the novel of the same title by Valery Bryusov. Set in the Renaissance era, the story involves the teenage Renata, who may be an hysterical fanatic or an actual though quite eccentric mystic – or someone quite evil. Much of the subject matter involves religious worship and morality, evil spirits, arguments of reason versus superstition, and the like. I'll give a brief plot summary. Renata, who seems constantly harrassed by spirits, befriends the knight Ruprecht and tells him of her visions from childhood on of Madiel, the fiery angel. When she turned sixteen she wanted to have a physical relationship with him and Madiel became angry and fled. She tells Ruprecht that Count Heinrich, with whom she lived for a year, is the human incarnation of Madiel. Renata begins searching for him and is accompanied by Ruprecht who desires to become her lover. He is eventually rejected by her and drawn into a duel with Heinrich who seriously wounds him. Ruprecht recovers and asks Renata to marry him but is rejected once more. Renata goes off to a monastery, where evil spirits eventually seize control over the other nuns there. The exorcist/inquisitor performs an exorcism that fails to drive out the evil spirits. He declares that Renata is in league with the devil and orders her to be burned at the stake.

Events in the opera can be unsettling even today, especially in a production as bold and effective as this one by David Freeman. What makes the story even more effective is Prokofiev's music. Throughout the opera you hear two quite passionate lyrical themes, strongly in the post-Romantic mould, both of which appear in the first movement of Prokofiev's Third Symphony. There is also a menacing theme that begins with pizzicato strings that are underpinned by nervous repeated notes from brass. There are a variety of other themes in the opera: one associated with religious contemplation, as heard at the outset of Act Five; a slithering wind-over-the-graveyard theme played by strings; monstrous music in lower ranges depicting evil spirits and exorcism; and much else. Contrary to much critical opinion, the music is not radical or even particularly challenging for the listener, though it has moments of crashing dissonance, pounding rhythms and – especially at the climax of the opera – multi-part choral writing that can seem chaotic and shrill. But it's all masterly and brilliantly imagined.

Regarding this performance of The Fiery Angel, I can only say it is a powerful account in nearly every important respect. Soprano Galina Gorchakova, in the titanically demanding role of Renata, is splendid both vocally and dramatically. Baritone Sergei Leiferkus as Ruprecht is equally compelling, and the rest of the cast is fine, but I must single out Vladimir Ognovenko for his riveting portrayal of the Inquisitor. Good as the singers are though, the real star here is Valery Gergiev. The orchestra so often carries the main line in Prokofiev's operas, and this one is a prime example of that tendency. Moreover, there are a couple of entr'actes and extended orchestral passages that are essential to an effective performance: try the music accompanying the Act Three duel between Ruprecht and Heinrich, which here is delivered with a scorching intensity.

As suggested above, Stage Director David Freeman must be accorded his share of the credit for this fine production as well. This opera, which is rife with symbolism and conflicting interpretations, is difficult to sort through, but Freeman handles the seemingly contradictory and confusing elements with a reasonably clear vision: he seems to regard the story as being about the presence of evil everywhere, and that not just the weak-minded can become are vulnerable to it. Of course, there's much more to his view of the work, but I'll leave further analysis for others. Evil spirits are portrayed by white-painted or -powdered male dancers from the St. Petersburg Maryinsky Acrobatic Troupe. They slither, flip and tumble across the stage, often dogging or tempting the characters. The sets are modest but quite effective in conveying a medieval sort of atmosphere. The costumes are of the period and the religious habits also seem quite authentic. The camera work is excellent and the sound reproduction good, despite some imbalances: the opening of Act Five, for example, features an off stage chorus that is too far away, leaving the string harmonies too prominent in the sound field. The opposite occasionally occurs: sometimes the singers seem too closely miked. As for the visual features, the 4:3 aspect ratio stretches the scenery out and makes the characters seem a little wider or heavier. Despite these minor flaws, this is overall a great production of a major masterpiece and the finest of the three recordings of the opera. Highest recommendations!

Copyright © 2014, Robert Cummings