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The uneven “Fiery Angel” receives an outstanding performanceDec 17 2014
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This set is an example of outstanding execution -- singing, orchestral accompaniment and sound engineering -- applied to a stage work of mixed quality. “The Fiery Angel” took up years of Sergei Prokofiev’s life, from initial sketches to adapting the original novel into a libretto, which he did himself, to writing the piano score and then orchestrating it. 8 years of effort. And then the opera, finished once and for all in 1927, wasn’t performed in Prokofiev’s lifetime. This fiasco was one of the contributing factors to the crisis of confidence Prokofiev suffered in the early 1930s, one that led to his seemingly-demented and ultimately catastrophic (especially for his wife) return to the Soviet Union in 1936.
I saw the opera live in the 1990s and then have been listening to it in this Neeme Jaarvi performance. My bottom-line assessment is that it has its moments, but there are also long stretches of music that simply aren’t interesting. Written in a brash, sometimes barbaric idiom, the best part of the opera occurs in Act 2, especially the witchcraft scenes and the theme with tremolo strings above a frightening ostinato. Parts of this Act 2 writing were used as a basis by Prokofiev for the 3rd symphony, a 30-minute-long work that one could use as a sort of Cliff’s Notes for “Fiery Angel.” I found Acts 1 and 3 to have generally low levels of interest. The concluding acts, which take place in a convent with demonic possessions and an orgy, are more interesting musically.
“The Fiery Angel” can’t survive without excellent vocal leads. Fortunately, we are blessed with two outstanding ones in this 1991 release. The US soprano Nadine Secunde does the main role of Renata with technical aplomb and musicality. Baritone Siegfried Lorenz, cast in the role of Ruprecht, has a wonderful voice and projects mastery of the material. The supporting roles aren’t quite at the level of Secunde or Lorenz but are generally capable. I have had mixed experiences with Neeme Jaarvi but my impression is that this is one of the best of his many recordings. It’s a sharp orchestral interpretation with tight ensemble in what is a very challenging score.
One of the side benefits of this release are the liner notes written by Russian music specialist Richard Taruskin. Taruskin provides the real-life background to the plot of “The Fiery Angel”, including a fascinating and depressing postscript about the woman, Nina Petrovskaya, who inspired the story and the character of Renata. Astonishingly, Petrovskaya like Prokofiev emigrated to France and died, without his knowing it, a short distance from the composer when he was working on the score. The sound engineering, as I mentioned, is very good as well.
If you are interested in getting to know “The Fiery Angel”, this recording can be recommended with confidence. If you are uncertain, I suggest listening to the 3rd symphony first as a check.