Mariinsky Theatre’s The Fiery Angel shows that it is still as shocking as it was thirty years ago

Russian FederationRussian Federation Prokofiev, The Fiery Angel: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre / Christian Knapp (conductor). Mariinsky II, St Petersburg, 5.10.2021. (GT)

Mariinsky Theatre’s The Fiery Angel

Stage director – David Freeman
Revival director – Yuri Laptev
Set designer – David Roger
Lighting – Steven Whitson, Vladimir Lukashevich
Lighting adaptation for the Mariinsky II – Yegor Kartashov

Renata – Maria Bayankina
Ruprecht – Yevgeny Nikitin
The Sorceress – Olga Savova
Agrippa of Nettesheim – Vasily Gorshkov
Faust – Ilya Bannik
Méphistophélès – Alexander Timchenko
The Inquisitor – Stanislav Trofimov

For many years the music of this opera was known only through the rare performances of Prokofiev’s Third Symphony. In both Russia and worldwide, the scenes of exorcism posed censorship problems with authorities and no less so the modernism of Prokofiev’s score, added to by the problems of acquiring a dramatic soprano with great stamina and power.

This co-production by the Mariinsky and Covent Garden dates from its premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre on 29 December 1991. This was staged in a period when cultural life was opening up and at last the Kirov Opera (as it was known then) progressed to collaborations with western record companies and international touring. This production has been seen throughout the world and has been acclaimed for its stunning portrayal of Prokofiev’s most controversial opera. Thankfully, in recent years it has been staged more widely and has continued in its notoriety with audiences. I was lucky – within six months in 2017 – to see two different stagings in Zurich and in Glasgow, and even in Scotland, where the scenes of exorcism had to be toned down to suit local authorities. (I can well recall in the 1970s a showing of Ken Russell’s film The Devils being banned in the city where religion remains a heated topic.) It is significant that this Mariinsky staging competed well with a 2008 production by the Bolshoi Theatre (influenced by Kandinsky) in London some years ago.

The Mariinsky Theatre musicologist Bogdan Korolyuk writes: ‘If one were to read the libretto of The Fiery Angel “in isolation”, then one would be left facing a peculiar story about life in the Middle Ages, a story with no beginning and no end: there is a woman who has visions of demons, she involves a knight who has fallen in love with her in her misadventures, but she is burnt at the stake as a witch and the fate of the knight is unresolved. Of course, there is no opera that can be simplified to just the text of its libretto – an opera must be listened to – but even the music of The Fiery Angel is something of a paradox.

The opera’s characters are in a constant state of tension trying to understand whether or not demons actually exist and how they should be dealt with, at the same time not surrendering themselves to the omnipresent inquisition, not destroying themselves and those they love – and are the latter, in fact, deserving of that love? This tension constantly breaks out in the music: it could not be said that Prokofiev’s musical language is radical, although The Fiery Angel remains one of the most demanding operas of the twentieth century, for both the performers and the audience.

On the other hand, however powerful the spirits of Hell may be concerning the actions of the protagonists, with Prokofiev the evil remains unreal and carnival-like: the music walks a constant tightrope between drama and farce, between “true opera” in the spirit of late romanticism and a merry parody of the latter. Take, for example, the final scene where the nuns almost rip the Inquisitor to pieces, calling him the Devil and demanding he show his tail, while other sisters sing “La-la-la”. It is true that it is not easy to listen to all of this: Prokofiev split the chorus into six sections, and it would be hard to imagine such an impressive Bacchanalia in another opera. The Fiery Angel is also one of the most striking operas of the last century.’

As the opera opens there is a bare stage with a small central plinth with divisions separating the rooms of the inn where Renata (Maria Barankina) is staying. The stage wings reveal a group of demons constantly moving and often approaching the central stage structure. Renata is demented in her singing of her story of being in love with Madiel – the Fiery Angel, while Ruprecht (Yevgeny Nikitin) enters disturbed by her cries, ‘Get away from me, get away, get away from me!’ he utters a prayer ‘Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna…’ and the demon disappears, Madiel has transformed in human form into Count Heinrich who has deserted her causing her desperate plight. For Renata, Ruprecht is now a saviour who can protect her and although he is told she is a witch he will soon help her look for the Count. The innkeeper brings a sorceress (Olga Savova) to cast spells who frightens Renata and Ruprecht throws her out. In the change of scene, the devils move around to the rhythm of Prokofiev’s intensely moving score.

In Act II, Renata is now drawing a ring around her while Ruprecht stands on guard, she recites from a book brought to her by Jakob Glock a bookseller, Ruprecht sings a long aria professing his love for her. Renata is agonised declaring her love only for Heinrich, yet tormented, she falls into despair, there are loud knocks, and the devils begin contorting outside. She is casting spells, more knocks follow upon an exciting rhythm with the music in strings and brass, she collapses believing that the knocking means that the Count is coming. Ruprecht consoles her and Glock returns and Ruprecht asks him to set up a meeting with the master magician Agrippa of Nettesheim. In the darkness, we see Ruprecht chased by the devils, and we return to the inn where the Inquisitor and three devils dance inside, now three cadavers emerge as the scene collapses into catastrophe.

In Act III, Renata is outside a house in Cologne calling for the Count, yet he rejects her saying that she is corrupted by the Devil and that she had seduced him. After meeting Agrippa (Vasily Gorshkov), Ruprecht joins Renata in a long scene offering her his love, Renata laments that Ruprecht is depraved, half sunk in hell, and asks him to kill the Count to win her love. We see him appearing with Ruprecht on a balcony above, Ruprecht challenges him to a duel, but now delirious, Renata sees in the Count her lover Madiel, praying that Ruprecht doesn’t touch him, in singing of great power and stamina ‘Perish rather, Ruprecht, but do not touch Madiel!’ In the following scene, Ruprecht is injured in the duel.

Act IV opens at the inn, where Ruprecht is with Renata, who in desperation, tells him she cannot love him, and stabs herself and retreats to spend her last days in a convent, while Faust (Ilya Bannik) and Méphistophélès (Alexander Timchenko) watch on. In the ensuing macabre scene, Méphistophélès complains that the waiter hasn’t brought him his food and the devils pick him up and throw him into a barrel from which Méphistophélès consumes the waiter: in a chilling denouement he asks the morose wounded Ruprecht to show him the sights of Cologne!

Mariinsky Theatre’s The Fiery Angel

Act V opens at a convent, and we see a chorus of nuns in a darkened stage, while in their midst, a nun and Renata are kneeling in prayer, more nuns enter kneeling and praying and Faust, Ruprecht, and the Inquisitor enter. The devils try to molest the nuns, in the ensuing commotion, guards emerge but are powerless amid the orgy as Renata and the nuns tear the clothes from the Inquisitor accusing him, ‘You are more sinful than all the sisters here… You are yourself a servant of the Devil!’ The enraged Inquisitor denounces Renata attacking her with his staff, ‘This woman is guilty of carnal intercourse with devils… Let her be tortured at once and burned at the stake!’ Suddenly, a heavenly light shone upon the stage bringing this shocking stage work to an astonishing close.

This revival was memorable especially for the outstanding Renata of Maria Barankina who assumed this role last Spring and surely has a great future ahead of her. Certainly, her voice easily surmounted the tessitura of this difficult part, and Barankina offered a fine characterisation of the swiftly changing torments through her eyes, facial movements and arms. Yevgeny Nikitin as Ruprecht was formidable both in stage presence and voice finding all the nuances of his darkly complex character. The Méphistophélès of Alexander Timchenko was vocally impressive in expressing the terrible fate to befall Renata, also in character albeit in a limited time on stage. Olga Savova as the Sorceress was also suitably excellent both in acting and voice – all the shadowy arts of her part were heard in her vocalisation. The constant presence of the demons contorting and moving across the stage and the rather truthful to life acting of the nuns at the close was outstanding.

The American conductor Christian Knapp was masterly in bringing out the finest playing from his musicians and directing the singers on stage. For a production which is thirty years old, this collaboration between Covent Garden and the Mariinsky remains magnificent in every aspect of operatic performance. It still shocks and, on this occasion, I was mindful of the great dark shadowy stage with the demons constantly dancing and contorting around the walls and floors. One had the impression that we were looking into the head of the troubled Renata and sharing the terrible agonies she was suffering. The fact that the Mariinsky Theatre can continue to find outstanding singers for Prokofiev’s most challenging opera remains a triumph for Valery Gergiev and his company.

Gregor Tassie

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