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Fiery Angel, The [Ognennïy angel (‘The Flaming Angel’)]locked

  • Richard Taruskin

Opera in five acts, op.37, by Sergey Prokofiev to his own libretto after the novel (1907) by Valery Bryusov; Venice, Teatro La Fenice, 14 September 1955 (Act 2, abridged, Paris, Opéra, 14 June 1928; concert performance, Paris, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 25 November 1954, as L’ange de feu).

The full title of Bryusov’s erudite novel, which purports to be a translation of a 16th-century manuscript containing a lansquenet’s confessions, gives a fair idea both of its content and that of Prokofiev’s opera: ‘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, Alchymy, 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’. As one might expect from a leader of the Russian symbolists, Bryusov’s purpose, to quote the penultimate sentence of the novel was ‘to cross that sacred edge that divides our world from the dark sphere in which float spirits and demons’ so as metaphorically to explore the ambiguities of reality and experience – and, ultimately, of morals. On another level the book is an autobiographical roman à clef, motivated by, and describing, a love triangle in which the author was involved at the time of its writing, along with the poet and translator Nina Petrovskaya, and Bryusov’s rival for the latter’s affections, the great writer Andrey Bely (known, among other things, for his brilliant red hair).

Prokofiev came across Bryusov’s novel in America, shortly after finishing The Love for Three Oranges. He began sketching a scenario – originally in three acts (11 scenes) that hewed far closer than the final version to the novel’s plot – late in 1919. At first composition proceeded slowly owing to the composer’s heavy concert schedule, but in March 1922 he retreated to Ettal, in the Bavarian Alps, to devote full time to the opera in a location congruent with its setting. A piano score was completed before the end of the next year. The work is cast in the same declamatory idiom as Prokofiev’s earlier opera, The Gambler, except that far greater reliance is placed on a conventional network of orchestral leitmotifs. In addition, there are several extended monologues for the main character – the possessed maiden, Renata – which make an effect comparable with that of a traditional operatic scena, if not an aria. Thus The Fiery Angel is not quite so extreme an anti-opera as its predecessor.

Prokofiev revised the work, and orchestrated it with the help of an assistant named Georgy Nikolayevich Gorchakov, pursuant to its acceptance by Bruno Walter for production at the Städtische Oper, Berlin. Delays in the copying of parts prevented performance in the 1927–8 season, and the production was cancelled. When in 1930 the Metropolitan Opera expressed interest in the score, Prokofiev began another revision, for which two additional scenes were planned; but that production too fell through. As Charles Bruck, who conducted the 1954 concert performance, put it, the opera was then ‘carefully packed up and consigned to oblivion’ in the basement of the Editions Russes de Musique (Koussevitzky’s firm) when Prokofiev returned to his Soviet homeland, then the least hospitable venue imaginable for an opera having to do with religious mysticism. That Prokofiev never saw staged the work he considered the magnum opus of his period in emigration was surely his greatest artistic disappointment. (He salvaged some of the music by basing his Third Symphony on the opera’s themes, many of which had been originally conceived for various instrumental projects, including a ‘white [i.e. diatonic] quartet’; thus the symphony should not be regarded as merely an operatic pastiche.) After the war the score was unearthed by Hans Swarsenski of Boosey & Hawkes, which firm had acquired the Koussevitzky catalogue. Despite periodic revivals following its much publicized Venice première, under Nino Sanzogno, the opera has had difficulty holding the stage. The first Russian production was in the provincial city of Perm in 1987; the Mariinsky Theatre finally staged it in St Petersburg in December 1991, in a joint production with the Royal Opera that opened in London in April 1992. A vocal score with the original Russian text was not available until 1985.

One of the reasons for the opera’s continued neglect is its unusual fixation on a single very difficult – and dramatically static – role. Whereas the novel, as a first-person narrative, inevitably centred around Ruprecht (baritone in the opera), the author’s surrogate, Prokofiev’s libretto overwhelmingly emphasizes Renata (dramatic soprano), the possessed maiden. Her perpetual hysterics dominate every scene but two, making her role one of the longest and (in terms of range and volume) most demanding in opera. The concentration on Renata entailed the sacrifice of a great deal of colourful action (Ruprecht’s real-or-imagined attendance at a black mass, his duel with Count Heinrich etc.), resulting in a stagnant quality the composer himself recognized (and which his aborted 1930 revision would have addressed). The two scenes in which Renata does not appear – Ruprecht’s visit to Agrippa (tenor altino; 2.ii, based on Bryusov’s chapter 6) and his encounter with Faust (bass) and Mephistopheles (tenor; 4.ii, based on chapter 11) – are poorly integrated into the libretto and lend the action an episodic quality difficult to overlook in a work of which the literary source is not widely familiar. Finally, Prokofiev’s garish music, while often strikingly evocative of Renata’s obsessions – e.g. the scene of conjuration (2.i, best known from the scherzo of the Third Symphony), or the last act, in which a whole stageful of nuns are infected with her madness – undeniably overworks the device of ostinato. Though its difficult stage career and its reputation as the composer’s most modernistic work have lent The Fiery Angel the aura of a cause célèbre, familiarity has not always worked to its advantage.