Tribuna Musical: jueves, noviembre 12, 2015
“The Fiery Angel”, Prokofiev´s disruptive opera about possession
Strange destiny that of Sergei Prokofiev. He was fascinated with opera since his tender age: “The Giant” at ten, and then “On Desert Island” (twelve), “A Banquet during the Plague” after Pushkin (thirteen) and “Undina” (sixteen): none are extant, unfortunately. But “Maddalena”, created as a Conservatory student at twenty (1911), was rescued by the great conductor Edward Downes, who orchestrated the final three tableaux and premièred it in 1979.
Then came “The Gambler” (1916), on Dostoyevski, an intense portrait unstaged at the Colón; “The Love for Three Oranges” (1919), that wonderful musicalization of a Gozzi fable, fortunately seen at our theatre in several seasons; and then, “The Fiery Angel” (“Ognennyj angel”), eight years in the making, finished in 1927. Then came the Soviet period, with four operas, including “War and Peace” (1952), the only one done at the Colón. In all of these, success never came or took a long while in arriving, but the composer persisted. Yes, strange destiny.
Back to the troubled “Fiery Angel”. Bruno Walter in Berlin, Albert Wolff in Paris, tried to bring it to the stage but to no avail; Serge Koussevitsky conducted parts of the Second Act to stimulate interest, again with no success. After WWII the score was unearthed by Hans Swarsenski of Boosey and Hawkes, the firm that had bought the Koussevitzky catalogue, Éditions Russes de Musique. The first complete concert performance was in November 1954 in Paris under Charles Bruck, who did the first recording (in French). But the staged premiere was in Italian, Venice, september 1955, under Nino Sanzogno. Prokofiev had died in 1953, precisely on the day of Stalin´s demise…
After that the opera started traveling to many cities, including Buenos Aires in 1966 and 1971. Here it had a great impact; it was offered in Italian, conducted admirably by Bruno Bartoletti, and its 1966 protagonist was the stunning Marie Collier. The second production, in 1971, boasted the talents of Ernst Pöttgen and Roberto Oswald. So the current revival arrives after 44 years, two generations.
And what is “The Fiery Angel”? It is the adaptation of a novel by the most important Russian symbolist, Valery Bryusov; the text is Prokofiev´s own and the opera, lasting two hours, is divided into five acts and seven tableaux. As described by Richard Taruskin, “it is a 16th. Century romance set in Renaissance Germany, where burgeoning humanism coexisted uneasily with a highly rationalized, scholastically elaborated occult lore”. Based by Bryusov on his real life triangle with his lover Nina Petrovskaya and her poet husband Andrey Bely, it is the story of a strident hysteric named Renata, enamoured of the Devil “appearing in the image of a Spirit of Light and seducing her to many sinful deeds and ungodly practices” (Bryusov).
Cologne, 1534. Ruprecht, a soldier of fortune, falls in love with Renata and helps to find Count Heinrich, for Renata the incarnation of her Angel, really an aristocrat that had lived with her in a castle and left her , bothered by her delusions. In a fantastic scene, Ruprecht seeks the advice of the magician Agrippa Von Nettesheim, but he refuses to help the soldier and purports to be a practitioner of science; but three skeletons call him “liar!” Later on Renate and Ruprecht find Heinrich; she wants Ruprecht to kill his rival, they duel but the soldier is gravely hurt; afterwards he recovers. She vows to love him but later decides to confine herself in a convent; before that there´s a grotesque scene with Mephistopheles and Faust. The final tableau is a terrifying climax, as the Angel of Fire enters the convent and infects all the nuns, who even attack the Inquisitor; he declares Renate a witch and she will be burned.
The music is based on Leitmotivs depicting Renate, Ruprecht and Madiel (the Angel) in a predominant arioso of wide range. Apart from the two great monologues of Renate, the most surprising moments of this Expressionist and wild music are the Agrippa scene and the Interlude accompanying the duel, both in orchestral fortissimo, and the special masterpiece of the final Possession tableau, of almost unbearable tension. This Colón version was in the original Russian.
Renata is an enormous role (she is on stage during 90 minutes); it needs not only stamina and a big voice, but also the ability to sustain the hysteria that has overcome her soul. Although Elena Popovskaya did a commendable job, she was far from the electricity that sustain the role, but she sang well. In his long and thankless part (Ruprecht) bass-baritone Vladimir Baykov was stalwart and clear. The stunning voice of tenor Roman Sadnik and his acting ability gave full relief to his Agrippa (amplified as Prokofiev wanted to give an otherwordly feeling) and Faust. And although one hardly expects a black man to sing a German Renaissance Inquisitor, Iván García was very firm as the Inquisitor. (The first three principals I mentioned made their local debut).
The roster of first-rate Argentine singers was impressive in the many smaller parts: Cecilia Díaz, Hernán Iturralde, Alejandra Malvino, Guadalupe Barrientos, Duilio Smiriglia and many others, including the comely Novices and Nuns. And the Chorus under Miguel Martínez made a good contribution in the final scene.
The orchestra under Ira Levin was the great center of interest: if the tension was sometimes lacking on the stage, it was surely present in the strong work of the conductor with his responsive players: the music came out colorful, rhythmic, always interesting and alive.
Unfortunately the debut as producer of Florencia Sanguinetti, a veteran of 24 years at the Colón, wasn´t a success: the typically spooky Sixteenth Century story was transposed to our times, where the whole thing becomes absurd. The symbols generally fell flat (the merry-go-round evoking Renata´s infancy), the duel and Mephistopheles´ antropophagy were botched, the doubles for the principals were confusing, there were many missed opportunities for creating phantasmagories. The final scene, however, was much better and even its audacities (the bare-breasted nuns) made sense; but it wasn´t enough.
The vaguely church-like stage designs of Enrique Bordolini had some suggestive power, as had his lighting, but not the dull costumes of Imme Möller.
For Buenos Aires Herald