Cher Public

Fire Walk with Me

This week brings another opera about which we’ve heard a lot but have had few opportunities to see onstage: The Fiery Angel by Sergei Prokofiev. 

This 2015 performance features noteworthy Czech and Slovakian singers in a production which marked a huge success for the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre of Ostrava.  Baritone and Verdi specialist Martin Bárta won a singer-of-the-year award for his performance as Ruprecht.

While Prokofiev is mostly thought of as a composer of symphonies, piano concerti, and the incredible Romeo and Juliet ballet score, he spent time on 14 operas from The Giant at age nine in 1900 until leaving Distant Seas unfinished when he died in 1953.

He began The Fiery Angel in 1919, writing his own libretto based on Valery Bryusov’s 1908 novel with the same title.  Due to its complexity, unfulfilled promises for a premiere, and–most significantly–its subject matter, that of demonic possession, it sat unfinished for nearly a decade.

Bruno Walter promised a premiere in Berlin for which Prokofiev completed the orchestrations in 1927, but it never came to be: the world premiere was given two years after his death at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 25 November 1955 (in French) soon followed by performances in Venice and Trieste (in Italian; one cast starred Rolando Panerai and Leyla Gencer).  It took till 1990 to have the first recording sung in Russian, conducted by Neeme Järvi.

Finding a valid, complete synopsis took some work: there are significant variations among those offered by Wikipedia, Boosey & Hawkes, the Bolshoi Theater, and the Bayerische Staatsoper.  A link to the last of these is included on the Mixcloud page, although it omits the ending in which Renata is condemned by the Inquisitor to be burned at the stake.

I am still a bit confused over the title character: Madiel in angelic form; Count Heinrich von Otterheim (or another name, depending on which synopsis you consult) in human form.  I cannot find any of these names in any of the cast lists for performances or recordings.  Until someone sends me the inevitable correction, I am assuming that the character is only referenced, or portrayed by an actor.  So who is Parterre’s Prokofiev specialist?

  • I have vivid memories of the Kirov Opera’s performance of Fiery Angel at the Met in 1992. Here is the entry in my performance log:
    THE FIERY ANGEL
    7/18/92 Kirov: Gorchakova,Dyadkova,Alexeyev,Minzhilkiev,Pluzhnikov; Gergiev

    I had come to know the opera via the 1957 French recording with Jane Rhodes and Xavier Depraz, conducted by Charles Bruck and was very excited when the Kirov announced it would bring it to New York. Those were the days when Gorchakova was at her height and could do just about anything.

  • Fritz

    I was also at the performance that day. It was a Saturday matinee, and I have never seen the Met so empty. At best, about one-third of the seats in the orchestra and grand tier were occupied. Everybody upstairs (like me) just moved on down and took their choice of seats. We could even stretch out.
    Gorchakova was scheduled for several performances as Renata in just a few days. I’ll never know how her voice survived. (Maybe it didn’t.)
    This was in the days before titles. At intermission, I overheard two grandes dames types who were neither enjoying nor comprehending the performance. Commenting on the soprano’s almost non-stop singing in the first half, one turned to the other and said (in a classic lockjaw accent), “Oh, what is it she keeps screaming about?”
    Count Heinrich (a silent part) appeared twice in this production. The first time on a balcony as Ruprecht challenges him to a duel. Renata looks up at him and sees him as a fiery angel. The second time, after the duel, she is not looking at him, and he remains Heinrich. Of course, other productions may handle the character of Heinrich differently.

  • Thanks for this, Marianne. I’ve always wanted to hear the opera, mainly for two reasons: the great title and the fact that it has a killer soprano role.

  • MichaelStrickland

    It’s one of my favorite operas, not only because of the great, demonic Prokofiev score, but because I got to be a supernumerary in that legendary Kirov production when it was staged at the San Francisco Opera in the early 1990s. It can be presented as if the demons are all in Renata’s head but in this production they were real, played by acrobats from a troupe in St. Petersburg who prowled around the stage and literally climbed the walls while wearing nothing more than dance belts. In the crazy, final scene set in the convent where Renata has retreated, they descended to the stage and started stripping a half-dozen nuns completely bare in a frenzy straight out of Ken Russell’s “The Devils” while the Grand Inquisitor and his four supernumerary assistants were being pummeled by the demonic sisters. The director, an intense young Australian whose name I’ve forgotten, started rehearsals by telling us, “You’re psychic, you can see evil, now get out there and find it.” It was some of the most fun I’ve had in my life.

    • HenryHolland1

      That production in San Francisco was one of the greatest visits to an opera I’ve ever had. I love Prokofiev’s score and that production was a masterpiece. Luckily, I was in the upper balcony because that blinding flash of light at the very end was too bright. BTW, the directer was David Freeman, great job by him.

      • MichaelStrickland

        Thanks for the David Freeman identification. He was a really great director. He’s still working as I found through googling him, though he’s never returned to the San Francisco Opera, which is a shame.

  • Liz.S

    Thank you for picking up this piece! :-)

    It’s a bizarre story, isn’t it? I’m no expert but I’ve a vague impression that the original novel is loosely based on Bryusov’s real life love triangle (Bryusov = Ruprecht, his wife = Renata, and her interest, the leader of a spiritual cult = Madiel, the angelic devil…) Madiel doesn’t appear as a singer but sort of suggested in a motif repeated throughout this piece (can we call it a love theme? Or Renata’s yearning for him, perhaps.)

    I had limited familiarity with this work -- mainly through Neeme Järvi’s CD -- and of course bits of it through symphony #3 -- until I watched the webcast of BSO’s 2014-15 prod, which really opened up my eyes (ears tbh) and made me realize it is a fascinating musical piece. That was of course thanks to superb perfs by Jurowski, Sozdateleva (she’s Renata reincarnated, no?), Nikitin, Galouzine, et. al. I remember Jurowski’s vivid interpretations gripped me from the first note till the last one, literally :-)

    I really wish they could commercially release the BSO CD for the future generations to get to have a chance to experience this very interesting work. Papa Järvi and Mariinsky (Kirov) are wonderful but it’s about time to have another great CD by the great artists of our generation around, no?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eokFmjmzZCA

    • MichaelStrickland

      Jurowski is one of my favorite conductors in the world right now, and in Prokofiev he has no equal. I would LOVE to hear him conduct this opera live.

      • That would be Vladimir I guess. He did a great job with War & Peace in Paris.

      • fantasia2000

        I actually saw this opera live last month at Bayerische Staatsoper conducted by Michail Jurowski, Vladimir’s father, with Evgeni Nikitin as Ruprecht and the revelatory performance of someone unknown to me, Ausrine Stundyte, as Renata. This was a revival of the acclaimed 2015 Barrie Kosky production. It was truly a riot of a performance. For a 71 years old, Michail conducted a very energetic and exciting reading of Prokofiev’s score, matching the busy goings-on on the stage.

        I actually wrote a guest blog on this performance on Irontongue about this opera trip (https://irontongue.blogspot.com/2017/03/guest-post-mike-in-europe.html)

        This is what I wrote about “The Fiery Angel”:

        Saturday, February 25, 2017 – Prokofiev’s “The Fiery Angel” at Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich
        (Evgeny Nikitin, Ausrine Stundyte, Heike Grötzinger, Helena Zubanovich, Vladimir Galouzine, Kevin Conners, Okka von der Damerau, Igor Tsarkov, Peter Lobert, Ulrich Reß, Sean Michael Plumb, Matthew Grills, Christian Rieger, Andrea Borghini, Selene Zanetti, Alyona Abramowa, conducted by Michail Jurowski and directed by Barrie Kosky)

        The last opera of this trip turned to be the most colorful one. This was another example of acclaimed productions that drew my interest in seeing it. I saw Barrie Kosky’s productions of “The Magic Flute” and “Dido and Aeneas” at LA Opera and loved them; although I hated his “Bluebeard’s Castle” that was paired with Dido above. The Fiery Angel was a riot; blasphemous, grotesque, ridiculous, flamboyant, provocative, but at the same, exciting, breathtaking, and ultimately, you couldn’t simply take your eyes off it.

        The set was a lovely setting of a luxury hotel, which over time it would decay as the opera progressed. The five acts were played continuously without break. Prokofiev’s opera (similar to the novel where it was based on) contained a number of “orgies”/indulgences of passion, and Barrie Kosky really explored this theme. The sorcerer Agrippa in Act 2 arrived with an army of tattooed drag queens in ballgowns, and the Faust/Mephistopheles scene in Act 4 was pretty much lifted off Folsom Street Fair. Even more shockingly, in the Act 5 convent scene, the possessed nuns were all dressed like bloody Jesus with thorny crown. It was pretty surreal. Interestingly, Barrie decided to stage the final moment with just Renata and Rupercht in the room (back to the original setting), so the whole thing seemed to just like a dream or hallucination.

        Musically, Prokofiev’s score was very difficult, especially for the soprano part, which was pretty much on stage the whole time. Ausrine Stundyte was outstanding in that role. She had soft grainy voice and she smartly navigated her way through Prokofiev’s phrases alongside thick orchestration, while performing the very physical nature of her role in this production. She climbed, jumped, ran back and forth the stage, even involved in the orgy scene during the Faust scene. Evgeny Nikitin too was pretty commendable as tough, tattooed Russian Mafioso type Rupercht, although he tended to get drown by the thick orchestration, especially during the Faust scene. With so much going on the stage, it was hard to keep track of the various singers, most of them had only a few lines, but Kevin Conners and Igor Tsarkov were pretty impressive Mephistopheles and Faust, respectively, all the while donning ridiculous costumes and performed grotesque comic “game” in Act 4.

        In conclusion, I think this production would divide the audience; people would either love it or hate it. I happened to love this, and I too was hoping this would make way to our War Memorial someday. With the right advertisements, this would sell very well during the Pride or Folsom Street Fair, I think. I mean, if LA Opera can stage his Dido & Aeneas, why can’t we get this? Maybe it was just my wishful thinking.

        There is only one other opera house staging “The Fiery Angel” this season, Opernhaus Zürich in May/June, directed by Calixto Bieito. That should be wild, I think! It will feature the same Renata as this performance, Ausrine Stundyte.

      • Liz.S

        Me too! You have a very good taste, Michael :-)
        Speaking of San Francisco, his Ivan the Terrible with SF Symphony a couple of years ago was also gripping and moving. I remember it was the US premiere of Atovmyan’s wonderful oratorio version.

        His Semyon Kotko earlier this season at Concertgebouw was marvelous, too. It’s still on demand on Radio 4 site -- just in case you’re interested (you can find the link here http://parterre.com/2016/11/27/dream-home/)

      • fantasia2000

        I actually saw this opera live last month at Bayerische Staatsoper conducted by Michail Jurowski, Vladimir’s father, with Evgeni Nikitin as Ruprecht and the revelatory performance of someone unknown to me, Ausrine Stundyte, as Renata. This was a revival of the acclaimed 2015 Barrie Kosky production. It was truly a riot of a performance. For a 71 years old, Michail conducted a very energetic and exciting reading of Prokofiev’s score, matching the busy goings-on on the stage.
        I actually wrote a guest blog on this performance on Irontongue about this opera trip

        This is what I wrote about “The Fiery Angel” there (I tried to link the blog before but it got deleted as a spam):

        Saturday, February 25, 2017 – Prokofiev’s “The Fiery Angel” at Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich
        (Evgeny Nikitin, Ausrine Stundyte, Heike Grötzinger, Helena Zubanovich, Vladimir Galouzine, Kevin Conners, Okka von der Damerau, Igor Tsarkov, Peter Lobert, Ulrich Reß, Sean Michael Plumb, Matthew Grills, Christian Rieger, Andrea Borghini, Selene Zanetti, Alyona Abramowa, conducted by Michail Jurowski and directed by Barrie Kosky)
        The last opera of this trip turned to be the most colorful one. This was another example of acclaimed productions that drew my interest in seeing it. I saw Barrie Kosky’s productions of “The Magic Flute” and “Dido and Aeneas” at LA Opera and loved them; although I hated his “Bluebeard’s Castle” that was paired with Dido above. The Fiery Angel was a riot; blasphemous, grotesque, ridiculous, flamboyant, provocative, but at the same, exciting, breathtaking, and ultimately, you couldn’t simply take your eyes off it.
        The set was a lovely setting of a luxury hotel, which over time it would decay as the opera progressed. The five acts were played continuously without break. Prokofiev’s opera (similar to the novel where it was based on) contained a number of “orgies”/indulgences of passion, and Barrie Kosky really explored this theme. The sorcerer Agrippa in Act 2 arrived with an army of tattooed drag queens in ballgowns, and the Faust/Mephistopheles scene in Act 4 was pretty much lifted off Folsom Street Fair. Even more shockingly, in the Act 5 convent scene, the possessed nuns were all dressed like bloody Jesus with thorny crown. It was pretty surreal. Interestingly, Barrie decided to stage the final moment with just Renata and Rupercht in the room (back to the original setting), so the whole thing seemed to just like a dream or hallucination.
        Musically, Prokofiev’s score was very difficult, especially for the soprano part, which was pretty much on stage the whole time. Ausrine Stundyte was outstanding in that role. She had soft grainy voice and she smartly navigated her way through Prokofiev’s phrases alongside thick orchestration, while performing the very physical nature of her role in this production. She climbed, jumped, ran back and forth the stage, even involved in the orgy scene during the Faust scene. Evgeny Nikitin too was pretty commendable as tough, tattooed Russian Mafioso type Rupercht, although he tended to get drown by the thick orchestration, especially during the Faust scene. With so much going on the stage, it was hard to keep track of the various singers, most of them had only a few lines, but Kevin Conners and Igor Tsarkov were pretty impressive Mephistopheles and Faust, respectively, all the while donning ridiculous costumes and performed grotesque comic “game” in Act 4.
        In conclusion, I think this production would divide the audience; people would either love it or hate it. I happened to love this, and I too was hoping this would make way to our War Memorial someday. With the right advertisements, this would sell very well during the Pride or Folsom Street Fair, I think. I mean, if LA Opera can stage his Dido & Aeneas, why can’t we get this? Maybe it was just my wishful thinking.
        There is only one other opera house staging “The Fiery Angel” this season, Opernhaus Zürich in May/June, directed by Calixto Bieito. That should be wild, I think! It will feature the same Renata as this performance, Ausrine Stundyte.

    • The “revelatory” performance of The Fiery Angel was for me in Brussels in 2017, under Kazushi Ono, with Tómas Tómasson and Elena Popovskaya. I’d seen it before but never really “got” it.

      • Liz.S

        War & Peace!!! (I’m so envious :) Yes, we are talking about Vladimir. You’re right -- I guess we should be more clear going forward -- like the Järvis, they have 3 maestri in the family, although we don’t have much live exposure to Papa Jurowski or Dmitri around here.

        Maestro Ono’s take sounds very interesting. Isn’t it wonderful to get to experience “revelatory” performances? That could be the major reason why I go back to concerts/ operas again and yet again :-)

        • War & Peace was one of the Bastille’s best productions and no doubt also one of Zambello’s. In its video version it’s conducted by Gary Bertini. It’s a marvellous showcase of what the Paris Opera is capable of.

          • Liz.S

            And you have very talented Philippe Jordan there, Paris! (I rechon Kirill Petrenko, VJ and PJ are the 3 leading maestri of our generation :-)

            • The orchestra seem to like Jordan, which is important because when they don’t like a conductor they play like a village band on a bad day. I find he takes them to a very high level. But I’ve heard some people say his performances are too self-consciously beautiful.

            • Liz.S

              “they play like a village band on a bad day” -- that was the best quote of the day! :-D

              I really enjoyed your review. I also find Kirill constructs his music extremely in meticulous fashion.
              I watched the staged version (Carsen) of his Ariadne in München on the web (prob around the same time ?) It was with Wagner, Coote, Seiffert (not Jonas,) Brenda Rae, et al. I don’t remember much details but I had the impression that everything seemed to be working amazingly in the right way. I was happily surprised esp. by Wagner and Rae -- they were way much more wonderful than I’d ever seen.

              Great opera maestros seem to lift up not only the orch but the entire cast and crew as a music theatre to a higher level, don’t they?

            • You can find the full review of that Ariadne on my blog, if you click on my little profile pic. The blog is searchable so just fo for “Ariadne” or “Petrenko” (in which case you’ll find three different Petrenkos).

              I like “precision” conductors. Andris Nelsons is another.

            • Liz.S

              Thank you for guiding me there. I’m not sure my comment there get through to you (I don’t need the world to see if you’ve received it) -- just wanted to let you know I feel like I’ve found a wonderful treasure :-)

            • fletcher

              Jordan is conducting Ring highlights with Theorin for the Immolation Scene in LA later this spring… maybe I should grab a ticket?

            • Lucky Paris, indeed, at least as far as opera. Jordan has been the music director of Wiener Symphoniker and has just extended his contract, which removed him from the list of possible candidates for music director of Wiener Staatsoper (a post vacant since Welser-Möst walked out). I’ll get to hear Jordan’s “Meistersiger” at Bayreuth this summer, too. I’ve been a huge fan since I first discovered him back in 2003 when he was music director of Oper Graz.

            • Liz.S

              Good for you! :-)
              Meistersinger this year looks super inviting -- with Jordan, Kosky, Volle, Kränzle, Schwanewilms, Vogt, Groissböck… (sighs)

              Volle & Kränzle were a perfect match as Sachs & Beckmesser at the Met, too — I’m more than sure you have a blast. Do write us from Bayreuth!
              (I’m so glad Herr Kränzle has recovered from his illness. I was worried sick)