The Fiery Angel (opera)
Sergei Prokofiev's opera, The Fiery Angel, could be considered one of the composer’s largest challenges. Writing, production, and location were all factors in the piece’s progress. The journey to completion was not truly over until after Prokofiev’s time when the piece was first presented in a full performance at the Theatre des Champs-Elysée on Nove mber 25, 1955, and was first premiered at the Venice Festival in 1955.
Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel was based on a novel of the same name by Valery Bryusov. Prokofiev was more intrigued by the “orgies” (here, indulgence of passion) presented in the novel rather than the story ideas. The novel was inspired by Bryusov’s own experiences with one Nina Petrovkaya, and was considered one of the beginnings of the Russian Symbolist movement known as Vesy, or “The Scales.” Nina was the mistress of Andrey Bely. In their time together, Nina also came to know Bryusov in 1904, and this started to cause obvious concerns for Bely. There was an anticipated brawl on a remote road in Moscow, but a mutual friend of Bryusov and Bely prevented the fight. Nina, Andrey, and Bryusov inspired Prokofiev’s characters in his opera, making the novel the prime source of inspiration for the work. The novel was also the basis for the libretto of Prokofiev’s opera, which Prokofiev himself wrote with the help of Demchinsky.
Originally the opera was in three acts and eleven scenes, but was eventually reorganized into five acts and seven scenes. The story of The Fiery Angel has a culturally taboo subject: demonic possession. A full recording can be heard through a YouTube playlist here
Renata, a young woman searching for a missing love, resides at an inn. Ruprecht, a knight errant, meets Renata at the inn. She tells him that, since her childhood, she has been in love with an angel. This angel, Madiel, encouraged her to do good deeds, and at the age of seventeen she finally asked for his physical love. The angel, in response, glowed in fury, but agreed to return in human form. After Madiel’s promise, Renata had met Count Heinrich von Otterheim. Convinced that this was her angel returned to Earth, Renata immediately gave herself to him. One year later, Otterheim left. In denial, Renata begs Ruprecht to help her search for Otterheim.
As the two search for Otterheim, Ruprecht soon falls in love with Renata, although she does not share the feeling. They decide to resort to acts of magic and sorcery to find Otterheim. A spell is cast, and three knocks are heard at the door afterwards. Renata assumes the witchcraft worked and nearly goes insane at the thought of Otterheim returning. Nobody is there. Ruprecht and Renata seek out the powerful sorcerer Agrippa von Nettesheim. In Agrippa’s lair, Agrippa declines to help. His concerns lie with the power of the Inquisition’s actions on his help with such an ordeal.
Ruprecht learns that Renata has finally found Otterheim, who has rejected her. She begs to be avenged, learning that Heinrich was never her angel. Ruprecht attempts to exact revenge for Renata and duels with Otterheim. The duel is one-sided, as Otterheim easily overcomes Ruprecht and injures him.
Ruprecht and Renata have moved in together, but Renata now insists on joining a convent to better herself and for her soul’s sake. Generally in performances, there is a comic relief in this act, involving Faust and Mephistopheles at a tavern. The scene, used to break up the dark sarcastic nature of the opera, is sometimes left out of the opera entirely.
Renata is in the convent, where the leaders accuse her of demonic possession. As an attempt to heal Renata ensues, all Hell essentially breaks loose (both on stage and in the orchestra) as the other nuns are also possessed. She is condemned by the Inquisitor to be burned at the stake.
With no previous commissions or any actual production being present, Prokofiev set out to write The Fiery Angel at one of the only times of his life in which religion was considered for his works. The thematic style is more like Prokofiev’s pre-Revolution operas (such as The Gambler), even with the ambiguity. The only theme that strays from the ambiguous is the theme involved with the evil forces. The opera as a whole is a contrast to some of Prokofiev’s earlier operas (such as his opera The Love for Three Oranges) just by being a tragedy, and the story was considered very appropriate for Prokofiev’s dark and sarcastic style. The production of the opera was one of the biggest hurdles, for different reasons, Prokofiev faced. There was a large amount of extra material in the work, there were what was considered violations of theater, negotiations with different theaters both in Europe and America continued to fail. In the midst of it all, Prokofiev felt like he was unappreciated and unwanted, but his pride kept him striving for recognition. In 1926, Bruno Walter made Prokofiev an offer to have The Fiery Angel produced at a Berlin theater, which prompted Prokofiev to work on the orchestration. The orchestration was finished in 1927. The production was still unsuccessful. The opera and inspiration came and went, but it was the promises of production that kept Prokofiev writing.
The Fiery Angel was met with mixed reviews for different reasons. Largely, The Fiery Angel was, despite lack of productions, reviewed as Prokofiev’s “… strongest and most dramatically intense scores.” In a review of the Bolshoi performance of The Fiery Angel, it is said that Prokofiev’s “…score is crazy, but shouldn’t sound chaotic.” Prokofiev may have only been interested in the overarching story rather than the smaller details. It was also criticized that maybe the language would have been better in French rather than Russian. Some even called the opera a “16th-century Carmen with supernatural trimmings” amongst other mixed reviews. Another criticism is that The Fiery Angel is nothing but confusion and noise with the “modern” title. Using staging should not be there to make up for the music, but to mix with it and make a grand production. Prokofiev was able to write the music how he saw fit, which appealed to many more than the staging has, according to different reviews.
In all, it can be assumed that Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel has had a lot of insight and thought from the composer. He used a novel that interested him very much that was written by a very important author that helped start the Russian symbolist movement. It was a work that reached the brink of public acceptance and came out as a work of great praise, most staging aside.
- The first was recorded in 1957, conducted by Charles Bruck with the Orchestra of the Paris Opera. The opera was performed in French with Xavier Depraz and Jane Rhodes in the leading roles.
- The first Russian-language recording was released in 1990, conducted by Prokofiev specialist Neeme Järvi with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, starring Nadine Secunde and Siegfried Lorenz as Renata and Ruprecht with Bryn Terfel, Heinz Zednik and Kurt Moll in Supporting roles.
- Valery Gergiev, who has recorded a wide array of Russian operas with the Kirov Opera, released a recording taped from a series of performances at the Kirov opera, with Sergei Leiferkus and Galina Gorchakova as Ruprecht and Renata.
- Ed. Larue, Steven C. International Dictionary of Opera, Vol. 1: A-K. St. James Press: Detroit, 1993, 439.
- Taruskin, Richard. “Another World.” Opera News, Vol. 60, No. 7 (December 1995). 8, accessed October 6, 2012, http://ezproxy.butler.edu:2293/iimp/docview/1164853/1399C72BE8E1219F6AD/4?accountid=9807
- Nice, David. Prokofiev: From Russia to the West, 1891-1935. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2003, 166.
- Larue, International, 439
- Elsworth, John. “Prokofiev and Briusov: The Libretto of The Fiery Angel.” Slavonica 10, no. 1 (April 2004). 2, accessed September 19, 2012, https://ezproxy.butler.edu:8443/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=aph&AN=13195765&site=ehost-live&scope=site
- Clark, Andrew. "Fascinating challenge of demonic possession opera." The Financial Times (January, 2007). 13, accessed: September 26, 2012 http://bi.galegroup.com/essentials/article/GALE%7CA158511158/36ed61fe0b73260d302e268165829079?u=butleru
- Traeumereien, Valenciennes. “Prokofiev: The Fiery Angel.” YouTube playlist, 2:13:23. Posted by “darkhoneybass,” posted August 10th-16th, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLCD660A53D28876B4
- Larue, International, 439
- Larue, International, 440
- Ed. Holden, Amanda. The New Penguin Opera Guide. Penguin Group: London, 2001, 693
- Nestyev, Israel V. Sergei Prokofiev: His Musical Life. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1946, 82
- Nestyev, Musical, 107
- Elsworth, “Libretto”, 2
- Ed. Holden, Penguin, 693
- Conrad, Peter. "Laughing at Stalin: Soviet Russia ruined Prokofiev's life but inspired his most comic, and lyrical, music." New Statesman, Vol. 135 no. 4805 (2006), 35, accessed September 26, 2012, https://ezproxy.butler.edu:8443/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=bth&AN=21969393&site=ehost-live&scope=site
- Clark, Fascinating, 13
- McAllister, Rita. “Natural and Supernatural in ‘The Fiery Angel’.” The Musical Times, Vol. 111, No. 1530 (August 1970), 785, accessed October 1, 2012, http://www.jstor.org/stable/955299
- Taruskin, Another, 8
- Clark, Fascinating, 13
- The Fiery Angel, Op 37 at Prokofiev.org
- The Fiery Angel by Tony Rothman
- Video clip of Sergey Prokoviev's "The Fiery Angel" at the Mariinsky Theater