PROKOFIEV: The Fiery Angel
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PROKOFIEV: The Fiery Angel

spacer Gorchakova, Diadkova; Pluzhnikov, Galouzine, Leiferkus, Aleksashkin, Ognovenko; Chorus and 
Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Gergiev. Production: Freeman. 124 mins. Subtitles. Arthaus Musik 100 391

Fiery Angel DVD Cover 1014

This 1993 performance documents the Mariinsky Theatre in an era when high artistic excitement prevailed in Valery Gergiev’s theater. One of the conductor’s most estimable feats — besides building the fine ensemble that populates this DVD — was the reinvestigation and restoration of Sergei Prokofiev’s operas, only sparsely played in Russian opera houses before Gergiev’s ascendancy. Ultimately, War and Peace and Betrothal in a Monastery may linger longest in the repertory, but The Fiery Angel — despite the occasional clumsiness of its construction and pacing — finally won a production that made some sense of it.

Based on a Symbolist roman à clef by Valery Bryusov that sets an impossible love triangle in sixteenth-century Cologne, Fiery Angel occupied Prokofiev fitfully throughout the 1920s; some of the music eventually was repurposed into the Third Symphony. Fiery Angel first received a fully staged performance in 1955, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, two years after the composer’s death. 

In Act V, demons and then the Inquisition torment Renata while her would-be savior, Ruprecht, looks on. No, it’s not much fun, but there are some strong scenes and some musical payoff once one attends to the orchestral, rather than the challenging but largely conversational vocal lines. David Freeman’s Mariinsky staging, a coproduction with Covent Garden, makes some of the best use of dancers/mimes I’ve ever seen in opera, with living gargoyle-like demons, present throughout, though sometimes still. Video director Brian Large does well with close-ups but must struggle a bit to capture the production’s final scene, an orgiastic writhing mass of nuns and demons.

Gergiev brought this staging and its two spectacular, tireless leads — with whom he subsequently fell out — to New York in 1992 and to San Francisco in 1994. Convincingly beclouded by visions and passion, Galina Gorchakova (Renata) manages to stay vocally fresh throughout while pumping out sound in the upper middle register; she shows dynamic variety her Italian roles didn’t always exhibit. Sergei Leiferkus (Ruprecht) manages to inject remarkable legato into what can be a ranted part. 

Pride of place among the supporting singers — many of whom are now familiar to Met and other American audiences — goes to the two tenors, the trenchant Konstantin Pluzhnikov (his Mephistopheles full of detail) and the thrilling-toned Vladimir Galouzine, as the magician Agrippa. Larissa Diadkova sounds wonderful as a be-turbaned Fortune-teller, as does contralto Olga Markova-Mikhailenko as the Mother Superior. Sergei Alexashkin (Faust), Mikhail Kit (Porter) and Vladimir Ognovenko (Inquistor) uphold bass honor. The palette of David Roger’s excellent sets and costumes follows art-historical models, though Gorchakova’s hair and makeup are too contemporary. This kind of percussive, driving music elicits Gergiev’s best. spacer 

DAVID SHENGOLD

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