Much to Enjoy and to Provoke in The Fiery Angel

FranceFrance Festival d’Aix-en-Provence [4] – Prokofiev, The Fiery Angel: Soloists, Dancers, Chorus of the Polish National Opera (chorus master: Miroslaw Janowski), Orchestre de Paris / Kazushi Ono (conductor). Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix, 15.7.2018. (MB)

The Fiery Angel © Pascal Victor / artcompress

Renata – Aušrine Stundytė
Ruprecht – Scott Hendricks
Sorceress, Mother Superior – Agnieszka Rehlis
Mephistopheles, Agrippa of Nettesheim – Andreï Popov
Faust, Heinrich, Inquisitor – Krzysztof Bączyk
Jakob Glock, Doctor – Pavlo Tolstoy
Mathias Wissmann, Host, Porter – Łukasz Goliński
Hostess – Bernadetta Grabas
First Young Woman – Bożena Bujnicka
Second Young Woman – Maria Stasiak

Mariusz Treliński (director)
Boris Kudlička (set designs)
Kaspar Glarner (costumes)
Felice Ross (lighting)
Bartek Macias (video)
Tomasz Jan Wygoda (movement)
Małgorƶata SikorskaMisƶcƶuk (dramaturgy)

The footballing World Cup final made it unusually challenging to walk between the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume and the Grand Théâtre de Provence in time for my last Aix performance this year. Various thoroughfares were blocked as crowds gathered to watch the proceedings on screens across the city. Still, tired, overheated, and at times deafened by the noise of car horns, my friend and I made it, the journey definitely worth the struggle for this Fiery Angel. Mariusz Treliński did what he seems to do best: a ‘modernised’ yet essentially straightforward production, Boris Kudlička’s often spectacular set designs, Kaspar Glarner’s costumes, and Felice Ross’s lighting very much an integral part of that. Generally excellent vocal and stage performances offered much to enjoy and to provoke too.

Probably Prokofiev’s greatest opera, The Fiery Angel is, almost incredibly, based on a true story, that of Nina Petrovskaya, as told in Valery Bryusov’s Symbolist roman à clef. And yet, on the other hand, one might say it would have to be, for who on earth could invent so bizarre and seemingly incoherent a tale of demonic possession? Bryusov, again, one might say, for the tale is also invention, purporting to be a translation of a sixteenth-century manuscript, glorying in the excessive title, The Fiery Angel; or, a True Story in which is related of the Devil, not once but often appearing in the Image of a Spirit of Light to a Maiden and seducing her to Various and Many Sinful Deeds, of Ungodly Practices of Magic, Alchemy, Astrology, the Cabalistical Sciences and Necromancy, of the Trial of the Said Maiden under the Presidency of His Eminence the Archbishop of Trier, as well as of Encounters and Discourses with the Knight and thrice Doctor Agrippa of Nettesheim, and with Doctor Faustus, composed by an Eyewitness (translation, Richard Taruskin). Treliński captures that dichotomy well in some ways, less well in others. Perhaps, however, that will be the fate of any attempt to manage this unmanageable work, all the more so when it assumes operatic form.

His method is very much to emphasise realism until he can do no other, and to explain away or, perhaps better, account for some of the most surreal aspects, again until he can really do no other. Renata, then, is a very sad case already: a product of disadvantage or abuse, whose hallucinations, like those of many in the society around here, seem very much to be the product of narcotic substances. The charlatanry of the incomprehensible – to me, anyway – figure of Agrippa of Nettesheim is clear; or is it? How much are his multiple appearances, both to Renata and to the well-meaning if lustful Ruprecht, entirely the doing of a trip induced by their dealer, Jakob Glock? That we cannot entirely make sense of what is going on seems to me all to the good. Hallucinatory (we think) appearances of characters on all three levels of the set are far too much for any of us to take in at one setting: they are frighteningly real and yet at the same time clearly not at all real. Or some of them are, and some of them are not; we never really know. Yet is this perhaps not what might have been going on all along in the ‘original manuscript’? There is an oddly prevalent modern belief that drugs, their use and abuse, are somehow something new. Extreme, erotic ‘religious’ experiences and such causes, are anything but new, however. One only has to think of the visions of saints – who so very often had also been the basest of sinners. And so, the updating to a tawdry, flashy modern world of design hotels, sex shops, and gurus, is both true and untrue to the work – which, I think, is probably how it should be. One may make something of the knock-down Vegas walk-on parts or not, just as one might or might not in ‘real’ or ‘hallucinogenic’ life (or death).

Doublings are put, as if in Lulu, to excellent dramatic and not merely practical use. (If one wants ‘practical’, one might be better off opting for another opera.) Jakob Glock is also the Doctor; we think, perhaps, they are narcotic accomplices. Perhaps indeed they are, for are we quite sure that one is not an ‘actor’ – whatever that might mean in this context – and one is not? Mephistopheles and Agrippa of Nettesheim are one and the same – perhaps. Quite what we are to make of the scene in which Mephistopheles and Faust appear is in any case anyone’s guess.  Perhaps most tellingly, Heinrich, the object of Renata’s fixation is also not only Faust but the final act’s Inquisitor. There is something not only of the charlatan but, chillingly, the blind Jimmy Savile (!) to him too. Not for nothing do further visions – Renata’s, presumably, but who knows? – hark back to childhood, to gymnastic exercises, to an army of little Renatas in preparation for – well, preparation presumably for this. The notorious concluding convent orgy both does and does not happen. Is it all in her imagination, and is she now in hospital? Those expecting the acrobatic experiences of David Freeman’s celebrated Mariinsky production will be disappointed, which seems in part to be the point, but perhaps also intrigued, even moved to reflect. We do not always see and experience what we want to, however potent the drug, the magic, the God.

Prokofiev places Renata very much at the centre of the work: too much, some have said. Taruskin refers to ‘one of the reasons for the opera’s continued neglect’ being its unusual fixation on a single very difficult – and dramatically static – role,’ a state of affairs Prokofiev may well have rectified had he proceeded with his intended 1930 revision. I am less convinced that it is a problem, although lessening – I should not go so far as to say removal – of the novel’s autobiographical focus on Ruprecht certainly has its consequences. Whatever one thinks about the undoubted domination of the opera by the soprano in the abstract, it was surely vindicated in performance by the magnificent Aušrine Stundytė: obsessive, hysterical, and alarming, yes, but also vulnerable, human, and above all capable of expending an extraordinary range of colour, emotion, and dynamic contrast. Scott Hendricks’s Ruprecht had its moments, but he seemed less comfortable in the role. (Not that comfort is really the thing, here, I suppose.) ‘Weak’ roles are a difficult thing, of course; ask any Don Ottavio. However, I could not help think that he might have projected his own dilemma more strongly in musical terms. His Russian also seemed to me – this was confirmed by a friend who actually knew! – often quite indistinct. Otherwise, the host of bizarre characters came and went, starring as and when they could, almost all of them making strong impressions in their weird and wonderful ways. Andreï Popov, Pavlo Tolstoy, and Bernadetta Grabas, were perhaps first among equals here, but in such an ensemble piece, in such an ensemble performance, the whole proved considerably greater than the sum of its parts.

The other slight disappointment lay in Kazushi Ono’s direction of the Orchestre de Paris, especially earlier on. This was a fluent enough reading, which achievement deserves praise in itself, but a lack of bite in the first two acts in particular was often noticeable. Perhaps it was a reluctance to overpower the singers: surely a misguided reluctance in an opera such as this, in which so much is a manic struggle that may or may not ultimately make sense. The Polish National Opera Chorus sang splendidly, however, full of heft and far from without subtlety – except, of course, where subtlety is the last thing one wants to see or hear. Which, in this work…

Mark Berry

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