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Prokofiev angel 806004
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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
The Fiery Angel, Op. 37 (1919-27) Opera in Five Acts
Libretto by Sergei Prokofiev (after novel by Valery Bryusov)
Renata - Aušrinė Stundytė
Ruprecht - Bo Skovhus
Landlady/Abbess - Natascha Petrinsky
Fortune Teller - Elena Zaremba
Agrippa of Nettesheim/Mephistopheles - Nikolai Schukoff
Inquisitor - Alexey Tikhomirov
Mathias/Faust - Markus Butter
Jakob Glock/A Doctor - Andrew Owens
Innkeeper/A Servant - Kristján Jóhannesson
Arnold Schoenberg Choir
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Constantin Trinks
Andrea Breth, stage director
Martin Zehetgruber, set designer
Carla Teti, costume designer
Alexander Koppelmann, lighting designer
rec. live March, 2021 at the Theater an der Wien
Picture format: 1080i/16:9; Sound format: PCM Stereo/DTS-HD MA 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Sung in Russian; Subtitles: German, English, Korean, Japanese
Reviewed in stereo
UNITEL EDITION Blu-ray 806004 [122 mins]

I reviewed the Naxos Blu-ray disc of The Fiery Angel in January 2021 and it was given an ROTM. Since this opera is not often staged or recorded I didn't expect another performance to come along so soon, though I have noticed more than a few productions of it in Europe in recent times. A run at the Met was scheduled for November 2020 but was canceled owing to the pandemic. It will be rescheduled in the near future, we are told. Here in this Unitel Edition presentation from the Theater an der Wien we have a performance that certainly won't go unnoticed.

Without hesitation, I can call this a “good news, bad news” event. The good news is the musical performances by soloists, chorus and orchestra are simply superb, and much of the success must be credited to conductor Constantin Trinks, who captures the full measure of Prokofiev's powerful score with uncommonly adept phrasing and subtlety. Musically speaking this is the finest recording of the opera ever made. Now the bad news: this is a regietheater production that, while probably not disappointing to those who favor such nontraditional and aggressively modern approaches, radically recasts Prokofiev's opera from its Renaissance-era setting to, presumably, a crude mid-20th century mental asylum, if I can judge by the old typewriters on stage and absence of computers. Except for several brief moments where a patient is shown with either angelic white wings or demonic black ones, the viewer sees no other sign of religion in the opera—no rituals, crucifixes or clerical garb, and no presence of good or evil spirits. Discarding the religious elements here is akin to taking the whale out of Moby Dick and replacing it with an angry minnow. Yet, all the words from the libretto are faithfully sung even if the action on stage is at odds with them.

Some readers may want to click the link above to the Naxos review to read the plot synopsis therein before proceeding. I'm not surprised that Andrea Breth, known for her controversial productions, decided on such a treatment and setting for this rather unique work, because the inherent medieval aspects of The Fiery Angel can't really be modernized and placed, say, several centuries ahead without significantly attenuating its impact. Thus, the story is set in a sort of unreal or seemingly timeless place, a kind of prison, where hallucinatory and nightmarish happenings befall its characters, Renata in particular, while an indifferent world regards their suffering coldly. There is a lot of obvious symbolism in the opera expressing this kind of view. For example, at the beginning of Act II, in an apparent group therapy session, one handicapped patient falls to the floor and is simply left unattended. At the end of Act III Renata is hysterically ranting in one of her many mad scenes while a neglectful nurse and doctor dance in the background.

It's difficult to discern much of a plot to this story except for the degeneration of Renata into complete madness as the story proceeds because of her obsession with Madiel (the fiery angel) and Heinrich, Madiel's human incarnation—or, more simply, because of her obsession with religious extremism. In the final act, when an exorcism is supposed to be taking place, she is denounced by other mental patients who stand at various levels on a sort of pyramidical structure of metal beds looking down upon her as she crawls fearfully along the floor. She is dragged out and when the exorcist, or asylum attendant (take your pick), orders her to the Inquisition for torture and death, she immediately meets her demise in an unexpected way. Or does she? This of course is probably another of her many hallucinations, again though symbolizing society's indifference to human suffering.

Actually another way to look at the story occurs at the beginning of the opera when Ruprecht enters the mental asylum and is rudely surprised when he is given an injection to sleep. Aware of this opera's radical approach even before I received the recording, I immediately thought that Ruprecht, though he immediately awakens, could actually still be asleep and dreaming the story that now follows. Otherwise, what was the point of the injection? Why would he wake up so soon? Was his awakening then the beginning of the dream, the story? Indeed, the ensuing action could just be a product of his demented mind, for the floor begins to rise and reveal a lower level with many patients, including Renata, as if a curtain is rising for the launch of the main story.

But multiple interpretations aren't the only perplexing aspect. The two most dramatic moments in the opera are the Act III duel between Ruprecht and Heinrich and the aforementioned Act V exorcism scene, here of course a sort of riot targeted at Renata. The latter actually goes quite well artistically, but the former is decidedly a dud: nothing happens to accompany Prokofiev's powerful, tension-filled and explosive music—no duel or action at all as the lights dim and most of the characters seem frozen on stage, with just a few moving very slowly.

On the plus side, Act V, far removed from the libretto though it is, is without doubt the most effective segment in this production. The singing by the chorus of nuns (or patients, in this case) is full of drama and their fanatical manner is most convincing. Aušrinė Stundytė as Renata sings with utter passion and great dramatic skill, not only here but throughout the opera. The role of Renata is, by the way, considered one of the most difficult for a soprano to take on. Constantin Trinks shapes the music so that the dense scoring can be heard with more detail in its multiple layers than in any other performance. This is truly a spectacularly executed scene, especially as Renata is condemned and brought to her demise.

Bo Skovhus is excellent as Ruprecht, though in the bizarre and gruesome Act II scene with Agrippa, who is feeding himself and some monstrous looking dogs what might be body parts from experimentation, he is a bit under powered, leaving some of his words indiscernible. That noted, Skovhus, harnessed inside a small medical cubicle with just his head exposed, must be largely excused for this minor shortcoming because of the odd position from which he is singing. Nikolai Schukoff is splendid in this scene and elsewhere in the opera as well, and the remaining roles are also well sung.

The sets feature a deliberately drab look, as there are walls of wooden bars or slats, in front of which are litters, beds and chairs and little to nothing in color to break the black and white monotony. The lighting is subdued, often causing a shadowy atmosphere, which is visually effective. The attire of the patients feature mostly white loose-fitting gowns for the women, and for the men white and black or gray outfits. The nurse is attired in white and other medical personnel and staff are dressed variously in white, black or gray combinations. The camera work, picture clarity and sound reproduction are absolutely first rate.

As for the competition, on CD you have the pioneering Charles Bruck (Ades and other labels), an excellent rendition all around, though in 1954 mono sound; also on CD are Neeme Järvi (DG), from 1990, and Valery Gergiev (Philips), from 1993, and both are quite fine though Gergiev's sound reproduction is so-so. On video, the same Gergiev performance features a 4:3 aspect ratio and is surpassed in most other respects by the Alejo Pérez on Naxos Blu-ray. This last recording is my preference in this work even though it also isn't actually faithful to the libretto in several significant respects itself. But, again, on purely musical grounds, this new effort on Unitel Edition is the first choice and if you like a, shall I say, challenging regietheater treatment, this would definitely not let you down. Your move.

Robert Cummings

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