The Fiery Angel – Opera in two acts
Renata – Tatiana Smirnova
Ruprecht – Boris Statsenko
Fortune Teller – Evgenia Segenyuk
Landlady – Irina Udalova
Mephistopheles – Maxim Paster
Agrippa – Roman Muravitsky
Faust – Alexander Naumenko
Inquisitor – Vadim Lynkovsky
Mother Superior – Elena Novak
Jakob Glok – Leonid Vilensky
Doctor – Alexander Arkhipov
Servant – Vladimir Krasov
Mathias Wiessman – Nikolai Kazansky
Innkeeper – Leonid Zimnenko
Madiel / Count Heinrich – Alexander Krutyakov
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Opera, Moscow
Francesca Zambello – Director
George Tsypin – Set designs
Tatiana Noginova – Costumes
Rick Fisher – Lighting
Tatiana Baganova – Choreography
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 26 July, 2006
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
It used to be reckoned that “The Fiery Angel” was the key to the unsettled and often unfocussed years Prokofiev spent in the West: a combining of earlier tendencies towards experiment and provocation with the expressive reach that was to characterise his later dramatic and symphonic achievements. Unperformed complete in his lifetime (although with material used in Symphony No.3), “The Fiery Angel” arguably did not come into its own until the centenary of the composer’s birth in 1991 – courtesy of the Mariinsky (Kirov) Opera’s celebrated staging, to be followed by the first UK staging at The Royal Opera a year later. Since then, the work has come to be regarded as a major, even seminal operatic statement from the inter-war period, but not quite the masterpiece that the assessment from numerous of Prokofiev’s contemporaries and advocates would have had us believe.
The main reason for this must lie with the composer himself and his uncertainty – albeit non-stated – as to the kind of opera he actually wanted to write. Strip away the veneer of religious mysticism and decadent symbolism – one which was already fading beyond the horizon in the almost two decades between the completion of Valery Briusov’s novel in 1905 and Prokofiev’s embarking on his opera – and one is left with a conception that is neither tragedy, black comedy nor ‘morality’, but an uneasy amalgam of all three that fails to offer either a predestined or convincing outcome. In short, an opera that lacks a motivating purpose beyond its composer’s evident desire to provoke a reaction. Hardly surprising, then, if its protagonists are not engaging in their human predicament: their actions seemingly determined not by intuitive forces than by plot machinations too often less than subtle.
An opera this beset by supernatural trappings positively invites treatment worthy of the ‘Hammer horror’ variety, and it is to Francesca Zambello’s credit that she captures a sense of time and place without reverting to generic clichés. The main set – a baronial-cum-gothic mansion worthy of Daphne du Maurier, replete with spectral onlookers at its windows – served its purpose in being less a specific location than a context for events as they unfold. It also left enough space at the centre of the stage for the climactic set-pieces which vindicate the opera in theatrical, if not necessarily dramatic terms: above all, the dual between Ruprecht and Heinrich in Act Three and the unleashing of hysteria brought about by Renata’s presence at the convent in Act Five – both of these enhanced by stylish and effective choreography from Tatiana Baganova.
Equally impressive are the claustrophobic set designs – all oblique angles and precipitate gradients – by George Tsypin; less so Tatiana Noginova’s costumes – visually striking, but too often caught between the pitfalls of mock-medievalism and a generalised naturalism that could surely serve any number of late nineteenth-century stage-works. Rick Fisher’s lighting, lurid and stark by turns, is more consistently appropriate to the task at hand.
As to the cast, this was by and large a satisfying one. Admittedly Tatiana Smirnova does not always have the vocal presence to carry over some of Prokofiev’s more formidable orchestral outbursts, but she did capture a telling purity and consistency of character – qualities out of which Prokofiev might have fashioned a more empathetic portrayal of psychological imbalance had he been more concerned with characterisation per se. As the eternal chancer that is Ruprecht, Boris Statsenko amply conveys a sense of desperation as he finds himself unable to walk away from a woman whose dangerous vacillation is her appeal, though his absence in Act Five (except, as here, by inference) is a dramatic failing that Prokofiev was unable to rectify. From the many incidental roles, Irina Udalova was a characterful landlady and Roman Muravitsky a regal Agrippa – the magician whose non-answers to Ruprecht’s anxious questioning in Act Two come close to parody. Evgenia Segenyuk was a flamboyant fortune-teller, Vadim Lynkovsky a ruthless Inquisitor (though his storm-trooper apparel sent out the wrong signals), and Elena Novak a stricken Mother Superior, while Maxim Paster fairly stole the show as Mephistopheles – his capers making the most of the incongruous second scene in Act Four.
The choral, orchestral and ballet contributions show Bolshoi Opera to be on a par with its Mariinsky counterpart (Alexander Krutyakov a magnetic presence in the silent roles of the angel Madiel and his likely incarnation as Heinrich), while Alexander Vedernikov conducted with a sense of dramatic pace that finds the necessary momentum to vindicate the opera’s episodic formal thinking.
The whole production made for an absorbing evening – even though one is still left pondering over Prokofiev’s intentions in fashioning such a recklessly over-ambitious spectacle in the first instance.