I was in Zurich for a business trip, and decided to go see whatever was offered at the Opera House, which is one of my favorites in Europe. So here I am reviewing a creepy opera by Prokofiev, written in 1928, but never performed until 1955, The fiery angel. This delay was due to the plot, which was considered blasphemous and too violent for the audience of the time. I see their point.
The plot is set in XVI century Germany. Renata, a young disturbed woman, has been having visions of a beautiful guardian angel, Madiel, who guides her towards a chaste and holy life. These visions started in her childhood, and, when she became a teenager, she fell in love with Madiel, developing a sexual desire for him. He was not pleased, turned himself into a fire column (the fiery angel) and stopped appearing to her, telling her that he would return in human form.
The opera begins with Renata in the middle of what looks like a psychotic episode, tormented by demons. Ruprecht is kind of passing by and thinks that she, in her deluded state, will be easy prey for his lust. He’s wrong! He falls in love with her and becomes entangled in her folly. She is convinced she has found the human incarnation of Madiel, Heinrich, and drags Ruprecht around looking for him. Then she convinces Ruprecht to kill Heinrich, because he rejected and insulted her. Then she changes her mind: Heinrich cannot die! Ruprecht can’t back off from the duel and gets seriously wounded in it. At this point Renata discovers her love for Ruprecht, he manages to survive one way or another, but she can neither marry him (why?) nor have sex with him outside of marriage, so she joins a convent. In the convent she still sees and hears demons, and the final scene is an exorcism, at the end of which she is burned at the stake.
Other minor sub-plots involve magicians, esoteric Jews who smuggle black magic and cabbalistic books banned by the Inquisition, Mephistopheles himself eating a waiter, fortune-tellers, and, of course, nuns possessed by demons.
The music fits this horror plot perfectly: Prokofiev gives a perfect voice to all the Medieval themes, with a powerful, thick score. The orchestra was quite impressive, and the conductor Gianandrea Noseda drove the show with strength and determination. The opera ran for two hours with no intermission; it was a crescendo of emotion and horror with no respite.
The part of Renata is extremely difficult. She sings for almost the whole opera, and her role is vocally and emotionally very taxing. Ausrine Stundyte was perfect for the part. She is a great actress; she managed to represent the extreme mental instability of the character, and at the same time showing the endearing, sexy, attractive features which make Ruprecht fall in love, so that the story works. Her soprano is very powerful, her high notes confident and edgy. A bit too metallic for my taste, but you know how picky I am. To be honest, a smooth, velvety voice would not fit Renata. Her anguish is so extreme that her death, at the end, is almost a liberation.
Ruprecht was baritone Leigh Melrose: I liked him a lot. His voice is smooth and powerful, and he also was a very good actor. He and Stundyte fit together very well, both vocally and physically, making a believable non-couple. They had very good chemistry.
The rest of the cast was strong; I was particularly impressed by tenor Dmitry Golovnin, who really had a voice worthy of a better part.
The final scene, with Pavel Daniluk as a commanding Inquisitor, exorcising Renata, who is howling on the floor, with a choir of nuns who, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, alternates between calling her a saint and denouncing her as a tool of Satan, was unbelievable.
What did NOT work in this opera was the production. Calixto Bieito, OF COURSE, set the story in modern times and modern clothes, for no reason whatsoever. This is an extremely medieval story, in its themes and gothic atmospheres. The modern setting simply ruins the mood, without adding anything at all. The set itself was good, albeit not original: the usual doll’s house, revolving around on the stage (already seen in Paris and in Madrid, and probably somewhere else which I forget). Visually it was beautiful, with interesting light effects. But overall, in my opinion, a failure.
Nevertheless, the musical experience was very good! I got to meet a new opera, which is very emotional, in its weirdness, the singers were extremely good and the music was great!