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L'Ange de Feu
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L'Ange de feu est sans nul doute le chef-d'oeuvre lyrique de Serge Prokofiev. Avec Valery Gergiev à la tête du choeur et de l'orchestre du Kirov de Saint-Pétersbourg, la partition retrouve ses sources. La version que nous propose le jeune chef russe est évidemment chantée dans la langue de Pouchkine. La principale qualité de cet enregistrement est résolument l'expression de puissance qu'il s'en dégage. Les musiciens du Kirov n'ont pas de concurrence dans l'expression de l'oppression. Un Ange de feu haut en couleurs. --Pierre Graveleau
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Evgenia Perlasova-Verkovich ; Sergei Leiferkus ; Galina Gorchakova ; Mikhail Kit ; Maria Gortsievskaja ; Yuri Laptev ; Vladimir Ognovienko, Lyudmlla Kasianenko ; Sergei Alexashkin ; Kirov Orchestra, Valery Gergiev.
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Given this basic difficulty, which is outwith the scope of this review, a lot of the enjoyment any of us can get from the set is going to depend on what kind of sense we make of the story. It is really more about mediaeval Christianity, featuring angelic apparitions, diabolical possession, cabalistic books, the occult, a convent and an exorcism that gets seriously out of hand than it is about the ostensible story of the raving Renata and the rule-bound Ruprecht. Even in mediaeval times there were authors willing to send up the rigmarole of holy incantations, and I hope my memory over 40+ years is still accurate in recollecting such a quote from Marlow's Faustus to use as my caption. Marlow's mockery was humorous, but here we have another story, also featuring Faustus rather unexpectedly, which is anything but humorous. I myself understand Valery Bryusov's tale that so fascinated Prokofiev to be a sustained and savage parody of the whole ghastly rigmarole that was mediaeval Christianity. Prokofiev lets fly with everything he has got at the incantations in the exorcism, but the whole culture had sex on the brain (not the right place for sex), and it was obsessed with control of people's minds. On my understanding, namely that the narrative is a frontal attack on this mindset and not just another gothick yarn, Renata's constant 180-degree turns in her rantings make perfect sense. I have seen the storyline criticised for being disconnected tableaux, but that is not how I read it. Renata's series of obsessions is cumulative, leading to the convent via an effective guest appearance from Mephistopheles and Faust, and shedding the patient and plodding Ruprecht when there is nothing more to keep him in the plot.
The music similarly does not seem to get into its stride until we get the early narrative stuff behind us and find ourselves in Koeln with its unfinished Dom (which the liner unaccountably keeps mentioning). Until then we have been accompanying poor Ruprecht in his struggles to make sense of Renata. Leiferkus does an excellent job with his part such as it is, and indeed it is a big part in the basic sense of giving him plenty to sing. Sadly the lack of melodic or lyric interest makes all this seem to me longer than it really is, Leiferkus or no Leiferkus. However once set the composer loose on the occult stuff for real, and we are in business. Everyone seems unanimous in commending Gorchakova in the part of Renata, and let me join in that wholeheartedly. The male roles that interest me a lot more than Ruprecht does are Mephistopheles and the Inquisitor. Mephisto himself is, interestingly and effectively, a tenor part, which I think a brilliant inspiration on the composer's part, because it captures the pantomime devil-in-red-tights side of his portrayal. Konstantin Pluzhnikov has the idea absolutely, and so has Vladimir Ognovenko as the frantic Inquisitor, totally out of his depth in the final maelstrom.
It is a large cast and they really all do very well. My collection of Kirov/Gergiev operas on disc (even Sadko on DVD) is still smallish, but my confidence in what to expect grows with every successive acquisition, including this one. How you will like the sound I'm not too sure. I thought it a little lacking in bloom when I started listening, but my ear adjusted, as happens, and after a while I had forgotten my reservations, as also tends to happen. It is all very clear, at least. The liner is a de luxe effort, with a good introductory essay by Robert Layton, a detailed synopsis of the plot (indispensable, I'd say), photos of the main movers and shakers, and the full libretto in Russian printed using Roman characters, and translated into three languages.
I just wish I had thought to do what I did with Sadko, and got it all on DVD. This was a live performance (there is applause at the end of each disc), so presumably it was videorecorded and not just in sound. Maybe I have managed to help a little in the interpretation of the plot, depending on whether you think the way I do about it, and there can surely be little dispute about the set's quality in other respects. However if you decide to go for it, go for the real deal.
And fortunately the singers are more than adequate as well. Leiferkus is overall pretty good, but sounds a bit impersonal at times. Gorchakova, on the other hand, sings with the perfect mix of beauty and intensity, even hysteria, that the role (Renata) really needs; indeed, I cannot imagine this role being better done. The other roles are consistently fine as well.
Now, this is a live recording and there is inevitably going to be some extraneous noise, but fortunately there is little from the audience and the stage-noise isn't really intrusive. More worrisome, overall, is the fact that the sound is a little constricted, inevitably preventing some of the fiery orchestral brilliance to bloom or leave the impact that it could have. This is, to be sure, a minor point as well, but together with some other nitpicks the final verdict must be that even this driven, powerful performance still could potentially be bettered. Indeed, for the orchestral part I actually prefer Järvi (just as I prefer Järvi to Gergiev in the symphonies). But then, there's Gorchakove ... Järvi's soloists aren't really any match for Gergiev's. No, listening again to the power and intensity realized here, there's no way I can give this one less than top marks. Urgently recommended.
"The Fiery Angel" is indeed a flaming spectacle of an opera. It begins with a scene of demonic possession, or else of dementia, in which the beautiful Renata is found raving, tormented by writhing near-naked demons (the men of the Maryinsky Acrobatic Troupe), who continue to lurk on the stage throughout the production. Eventually the drama will include a sword fight, a lurid ludicrous tavern scene, and a climactic orgy in a nunnery, in which the nuns are stripped of their habits by the demons and flung naked around the stage, while the Grand Inquisitor hurls imprecations and exorcisms in vain. It seems that even today The Fiery Angel is too flamboyant for many opera audiences, and it remains 'controversial' even while off-stage nudity has become standard fare at the Salzburg Mozart Festival.
Renata has been "possessed" since childhood by her vision of the beautiful spirit Madiel, but whether Madiel is indeed a 'fiery angel' or a devil is the core question of the drama, amounting to a synedoche of the conflicting perceptions of Religion of any sort, as Possession by Good or Evil. But expect a straightforward resolution of that conflict! The Grand Inquisitor is no more patently the spokesman for God in this opera than is the cynical Mephitopheles, who appears in the tavern scene of the fourth act, with Doctor Faustus in tow. Both the Inquistor and Mephisto are costumed in bright red. Renata is 'rescued' from her tormenting visions, in the opening scene of the opera, by the wandering knight Ruprecht, who first attempts to seduce her but who then becomes "possessed" by unreciprocated Love for her. Together, Renata and Ruprecht travel to Cologne in search of Renata's previous lover, Count Heinrich, whom she identifies as the incarnation of Madiel but who abandoned her in disgust. The duel in act three will be fought by Ruprecht and Heinrich, after which Renata will seek 'sanctity' in the convent. This plot might sound convoluted and obscure, but it isn't. The libretto, which Prokofiev prepared himself, is quite lucid, and the dramatic structure of the opera makes the bizarre magical events of the tale expressively immediate. This is surely one of the most intense, emotionally challenging operas ever composed!
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote The Fiery Angel slowly, over the course of at least eight years, from 1919 to 1927, as he traveled from the USA to the Bavarian Alps (Oberammergau) to Paris. He interested conductor Bruno Walter in staging the opera in Berlin, but the project failed. In fact, The Fiery Angel was not staged anywhere until 1954, a year after the composer's death. That production used a French libretto; the original Russian libretto was lost until 1977. The opera was not performed in Russia until the onset of "perestroika".
Meanwhile in 1933 Prokofiev returned to Russia, to the Soviet Union of Josef Stalin, the Grandest Inquisitor of all. It was perhaps the lack of acclaim for his music in the West that sent Prokofiev back to Russia and into a kind of "possession" as demonic as anything suffered by Renata or Ruprecht in his opera. In fact, Prokofiev was highly successful in Russia, despite his avant-garde dissonance. He found an outlet for his music in the greatest films of the Soviet era and in his ballets. His later operas, including "War and Peace", were successfully staged and well received. Even so, in 1948 he was condemned for 'formalism' and forced to humble himself in apology; his wife was condemned for anti-Soviet acts and sentenced to prison. Prokofiev's health was damaged and he had to compose the merest hour a day for the rest of his life. Aptly and symbolically, he died on precisely the day in 1953 when Stalin's 'cult of personality' was publicly denounced. The composer of this potent operatic drama of Possession and Inquisition had lived to experience his own nightmarish vision.
"The Fiery Angel" is one of the very greatest operas of the Twentieth Century. I'd go out on the limb and call it one of the ten greatest. But it's not just the drama and the symbolic depths that make it great. It's the music, which is as fiery and witty as anything Prokofiev ever wrote. No other composer except Leos Janacek succeeded as completely as Prokofiev in subsuming the melodic lyricism of 19th C Romanticism with the astringent tonal/atonal complexities of modernism, melding the best of both. Ironically, Prokofiev's 'Soviet era' music has been extremely popular in the United States; in fact, his compositions are heard more often on American 'classical music' radio broadcasts than those of any other composer! One of the marches from his early opera "Love for Three Oranges" was the theme song for a radio serial about the FBI in the 1950s. Even so, his music has been persistently under-rated by critics and musicologists of the elite in the USA, and his operas have been neglected in favor of other inferior works. Let's all shout at or write to our local opera impresarios and try to change that!
The role of Renata in "The Fiery Angel" is extremely demanding, by the way. Renata sings about two-thirds of all the vocal passages in the opera; the difficulty of the role might be one of the factors that limit the productions of the work. For a successful staging, everything depends on the casting of Renata. Galina Gorchakova, who sings Renata on this CD and on the DVD, is superb both vocally and dramatically, from her first shrieks of madness to her final fiery apotheosis.
passionate relationship but he disappeared leaving her searching for him and having terrifying visions. Ruprecht falls in love with Renata and becomes her protector.
The story is one of occult interest with the heroine (or perhaps
anti-heroine) Renata being possessed by the angel Madiel and, in turn, attempts to posses the knight Ruprecht. While one is sympathetic toward Renata because of the constant visions that torture her we can sense her manipulative power as she provokes Ruprecht in an attempt to kill Count Heinrich, whom she suspects is Madiel returned to earth in a different form.
Prokofiev based The Fiery Angel on a novel by Valery Bryusov, published in 1907, that he discovered in America in 1919. He began the opera in 1920 but the work did not go smoothly and it was not completed until 1927, and revised it later in attempts to have it performed (it was not performed until 1955). Eventually, the music found its way into the Third Symphony
in 1928. The action of the opera is episodic than flowing. The scene with Faust and Mephistopheles is gratutitous and does not advance the story but does have occult interest. Also, in the last act of the opera, Ruprecht only observes as Renata is condemned to death, taking no part in defending the woman he loves. The opera has been described as being more a symphony in the guise of an opera. For me, despite the shortcomings of this opera, it is a remarkable work that has some powerful moments.
The occult subject matter and the difficulty of the role of Renata consigned the opera to oblivion until recently. This recording of The Fiery Angel is from a landmark production by the Mariinsky Theater in 1993 and won the Gramophone award for best opera. This is a live recording but the audience is quiet, and stage noise is minimal. Galina Gorchakova is perfect as Renata and conveys her vulnerability and torment. Sergei Leiferkus is excellent as Ruprecht, and the remaining cast members give wonderful performances with Vladimir Ognovenko being particularly sinister as the Inquisitor. Most of all, Valery Gergiev deserves praise for his peerless conducting of this opera and proving that The Fiery Angel is among Prokofiev's masterpieces.