Friday, 18 December 2015

Prokofiev - The Fiery Angel (Munich, 2015 - Webcast)

Sergei Prokofiev - The Fiery Angel

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2015

Vladimir Jurowski, Barrie Kosky, Evgeny Nikitin, Svetlana Sozdateleva, Heike Grötzinger, Elena Manistina, Vladimir Galouzine, Kevin Conners, Okka von der Damerau, Igor Tsarkov, Jens Larsen

Staatsoper.TV - 12th December 2015

We are well used to seeing productions from the Bavarian State Opera that are more than a little unconventional, often even seeming to have scant regard for the directions of the libretto. With Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel - a fairly rare work that was first performed only after the composer's death - the Munich opera company seem to have found a work that is truly bizarre enough to fit with what commonly takes place on their stage. Somewhat surprisingly then, especially since it's Barrie Kosky who is given charge of the direction here, the production struggles to match or keep up with the strange happenings that take place in Prokofiev's highly unusual work.

Even by Prokofiev's extravagant operatic range, The Fiery Angel is over-the-top in almost every respect. This is a composer who can plunge into the particularly Russian nature of the worlds of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky with ambitious and dynamic works like War and Peace and The Gambler, but he also reveals a side for the comic and the absurd in his Betrothal in a Monastery and The Love for Three Oranges. Musically and thematically, The Fiery Angel is no less flamboyantly orchestrated for the rhythms, patterns and strange paths that its plot takes. It's not an opera that is memorable for melodies or arias, but every dramatic line and gesture is underscored with complex arrangements and an invigorating punchy delivery.

The music then is perfectly suitable for a work that has few recognisable sentiments in its headlong descent into madness. The person suffering from delusions that take her on a spiraling sequence of hallucinations is a young woman called Renata. She has been discovered by Ruprecht, a rather more worldly-wise man who has found her in his hotel room raving about her childhood encounter with a fiery angel, Madiel. The angel however, becoming aware of Renata's growing carnal lust, abandoned her, but Renata believed that Madiel subsequently took human form in the shape of Count Heinrich. However, he too abandoned her after a year.

Ruprecht is inclined to take advantage of the young woman's delusions in her search for Heinrich/Madiel, her fiery angel, but as he makes the pretence of assisting her by exploring esoteric texts and seeking instruction from Agrippa von Nettesheim, he soon becomes caught up in the strange world that Renata lives in. The line between fantasy and reality (and erotic role-playing) becomes increasingly blurred as they are visited by nightmarish visions of Faust and Mephistopheles, which in turn leads to a kind of religious epiphany when Renata decides to enter a convent only to face trail by the Inquisitor for being possessed by a demon. The whole nightmarish descent into deeper madness is played through here over almost two and quarter hours without an interval. With Vladimir Jurowski conducting the Bayerisches Staatsorchester through Prokofiev's challenging score, it really is a whirlwind ride.

With such a subject and treatment, you would expect that the stage presentation would also be on the extravagant side, particularly as it's the Bayerische Staatsoper and Barrie Kosky is directing. Surprisingly, the opera set for the hotel room looks more like the Marschallin's boudoir in Der Rosenkavalier, with numerous footmen and porters on call at Ruprecht's arrival. With Prokofiev's tone being fairly manic from the start, perhaps Kosky felt it might be a little better to introduce a little bit of normality at this stage by way of contrast to where the opera goes later. That might not be a bad idea if the director were able to establish a more consistent tone that works with the opera, but instead all Kosky has to contrast it with in the latter half of the work is all the familiar camp hallmarks that seem rather too crude to have any bearing on the intent of the opera.

Kosky goes to town of course on the tavern scene, with the obligatory dancing men in drag, and he has Mephistopheles wave his willie around and play suggestively with large sausages. As one of the more unhinged scenes in a fairly bizarre opera, one doesn't expect the director to read anything deep into the irreverent and sexually-charged content, but there are surely more inventive ways of doing it than this. In a work like The Fiery Angel, you're not so much looking for elucidation as something that might engage and hold the audience through the increasingly absurd turn of events. On its own, Prokofiev's difficult score is fascinating in its own right, but at over two hours long and with no intermission (an intermission would only break the mood and the flow), it needs a little more visual engagement. The letterboxing of the stage and Rebecca Ringst's set designs at least manages to inventively keep things moving through a five-act opera, suggesting an interior world more than actual locations.

The uninterrupted two and a quarter length of the work is just as much a challenge for the performers, particularly as Vladimir Jurowski is intent on keeping up the pace and momentum, fairly rattling though the complexities of the score. Taking on most of the singing challenges as Renata and on the stage for pretty much the entire length of the performance, Svetlana Sozdateleva copes incredibly well, even when she has to endure the indignities of Kosky's direction. Such is the commitment and personality that she brings to a difficult character that Sozdateleva makes almost everyone else seem rather dull by comparison - Kevin Conners' delirious Mephistopheles excepted. Evgeny Nikitin consequently, while he sings well, never seems to get to grips with who Ruprecht is or what he wants. Prokofiev, admittedly, doesn't make that easy to determine, but you might have hoped for more from Kosky and the Bayerische Staatsoper.

The next live opera broadcast from the Bayerische Staatsoper is a new production of Verdi's UN BALLO IN MASCHERA on 19th March, conducted by Zubin Mehta and directed by Johannes Erath, with an outstanding cast that includes Piotr Beczala, Simon Keenlyside (fingers crossed) and Anja Harteros.

Links: StaatsoperTV