Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel Streamed from Munich

Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel is an oddity. The composer did not live to see a complete performance and it has never secured a place in the opera repertory. Written in the 1920s, it is characteristic of that period in its expressionist theme and style – an obsessed woman searching to identify the spiritual forces within herself and thereby resolve the conflict between good and evil – combined with a veneer of surrealism. Composed when Prokofiev was pushing creative boundaries, the score is modernist but eclectic, angular, strident passages contrasting with some lyricism.

I had been present at the UK première of the work in 1965, given at Sadler’s Wells by the New Opera Company, with Covent Garden favourites Marie Collier and John Shaw in the principal roles. I caught up with it again in 1987 at Hanover but have not seen it since, so was grateful to have had access to the streaming of the Bavarian State Opera’s 2015 production.

This was impressive in most respects, particularly musically. Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski is very much at home with the piece, both culturally and stylistically. There was an appropriate edge to his interpretation of the other-worldly dislocated motifs and dissonances and yet also a spaciousness to the calmer, more terrestrial moments. In Act Five he secured from his excellent orchestra a magnificent, passionate climax.

The pivotal role of Renata is hugely demanding in terms of its length (she is present on stage almost throughout), its vocal characteristics and – in this production particularly – its extensive physical antics. Svetlana Sozdateleva met all of these demands to a remarkable degree. Her soprano retained its lustre even when extended to its limits and dramatically she encompassed convincingly the emotional range from hysterical obsession to resigned passivity. Yevgeny Nikitin impressed with his robust bass-baritone, though his portrayal of Ruprecht, her would-be lover, remained somewhat pale. This, admittedly, was inherent in the part, since the relationship between Ruprecht’s love/lust for Renata and her attempts to communicate with the world of spirits stay unclear throughout the piece.

Nor was it resolved by Barrie Kosky’s production. I had anticipated that The Fiery Angel, with its mixture of frenzy and magic would be ideal for the Australian Wunderkind’s talents, but I was somewhat disappointed. True the contrast between the largely contemporary bourgeois setting for the domestic scenes (designer Rebecca Ringst) and the ageless weirdness of the world of spirits worked well, but Kosky and his costume designer Klaus Bruns could not, for the crowd scenes, resist excessively wild eccentricity, including  for example Mephistopheles with his penis hanging out and eating grotesque phallic sausages and the nuns for some obscure reason dressed as Christ crucified. It was hysterically showy, revealing far too little about the deeper content of the work.